Author Bryant McGill, states,
"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say."
Below are stories from members of our community who share their experience as a person of color.
My family moved to Knoxville in the summer of 1993. Even though I moved away in 2009 to attend grad school, I still consider Knoxville my hometown. I am African-American, and part of my father’s ancestry has been documented from a plantation in North Carolina. I grew up in predominately white communities. The only times I would typically see other African-American (or other minority) kids was when we would visit family in North Carolina, or when my class would volunteer at the local Boys & Girls club.
Some of my earliest memories coming in contact with people different than me are from the few years my family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio just before we moved to Knoxville. In Cincinnati, I attended a public school where I met my best friend—also a black female. I remember being very comfortable and outgoing during that time. When we moved to Knoxville, my parents made the decision to send my brother and me to private school, based on the lack of art and physical education programs available at the schools we were zoned for at the time. Although my family wasn’t what we would consider “wealthy,” my parents believed it was worth the expense for my brother and I to get a well-rounded education. At these private schools, my brother and I were often the only black children in our classes. I do believe this made it more difficult for us to relate to other black kids that were not brought up in similar environments. When we were around other black kids, we would often get made fun of for being “too white,” speaking “proper” and wearing “white kids’ clothes.” From that point on, I became a lot more critical of myself and much more reserved around other people, regardless of race.
A lot of assumptions are made based on how someone looks. What people don’t realize is that “race” is not the same as “culture.” In the United States, there is a general belief that a single “black culture” exists, and if you are black, you are automatically part of that culture. Although there is often an unspoken comradery between African-Americans (based on the “collective experience” stemming from our history in this country), we are not all part of the same culture. We may have similar experiences as minorities—racial profiling, for example—but we do not all listen to the same music, eat the same food, or speak the same dialect. So much of culture is dependent on upbringing and environment; however, as humans, we feel the need to categorize things, including people, which is detrimental to racial and ethnic minorities.
The really disappointing thing about race relations in Knoxville is that the city was once the most progressive city in the state of Tennessee. Knoxville was against secession from the Union during the Civil War and was anti-slavery. From my experience, race is something that wasn’t really discussed in depth in Knoxville, at least not when I was growing up. It was volunteer groups like Bridge Builders that really exposed me to other communities within the city, including various races, ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic situations. Today, I think the challenges in the city are drawn more through socio-economic status. Knoxville is very segregated based on wealth, and has been for many years. It just so happens that minorities are disproportionally exposed to poverty in Knoxville, which can deepen racial tensions. But this is also true—and perhaps even more pronounced—in many other U.S. cities.
I personally do not think all churches need to be integrated. Religion is a huge part of culture. It is also deeply personal. However, I do think that a person should feel comfortable worshipping at a particular institution of their choosing, even if the majority of the congregation does not look like them.
My advice for a church or individual who wants to work to improve race relations is to not be afraid of discussion. Disagreement does not have to lead to hatred. Be open-minded and listen. Do not think that you have to have all the answers, but be willing to offer ideas. Silence and close-mindedness are the enemies.
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When asked what we can do to improve our city, Kobe encourages, “Creating opportunities for our young people to not just get jobs and work, but to foster their creativity where they can learn to start their own businesses. Help young minorities not just learn to vote, but learn how to become a candidate that we can vote for to represent our voices.”
When it comes to teaching Black History in school, Kobe says, “Teach it... Every bit of it. Don't sugarcoat it. Teach black and white America that Black History IS White History, too, because much of it wouldn't exist without the participation and influence of the other. The most important thing is to get people to understand what happened in the past. … Teach not only the struggle and triumph of black Americans over the decades, but also highlight the measures that white America went through to create the obstacles black people have faced. … People always talk about black people having a "slave mentality", but they don’t equate that to the "slave owner mentality" of our white brothers and sisters, a mentality that has been passed down and picked up through media misrepresentation, living environments, and even the school system.”
Kobe’s advice to whites who wish to engage in the conversations surrounding racial recognition, he suggests, “Learn as much as you can about the people you are serving. Listen to them. Get to know them."
I’m a teacher as part of my grad school studies, and I have primarily taught in schools where the demographic is usually minority students. There was one time where there was a child who had only been attending that school for maybe a day or two, and he was from Ethiopia. I don’t know if he was a refugee or not because as a student teacher, we can’t know personal information about the children. But I knew that he couldn’t speak English.
For some reason he needed to leave the cafeteria, and instead of a teacher who he knew, a “resource officer” that was a lot scarier and who had a gun attached to his holster took him by the arm and escorted him out. He was terrified and crying, and was putting his feet down trying to stop the officer from taking him. His teacher could have taken him to the office.
He's five years old and didn’t speak English. Thank goodness me and my friend who spoke Arabic was there; she spoke to him in Arabic to calm him down a little, but he was still so scared. But why would you get a police officer to escort a 5-year-old out of a cafeteria? Me and my friend were trying to help, offering translation services so that they could speak to the parents and to the child. But they said “No we got it.” I’m pretty sure no one in this school speaks Arabic, so how do you “have it?” Like this isn’t what a resource officer is supposed to do, they are supposed to be stopping bad people from coming inside of the school and not patrolling five and six-year-old kids. This school is a K-5 school, your oldest kid is 11.