By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
How do people talk about racism in America?
What do people do when long held views of bias and hate come from the mouths of loved ones? Where do people turn when their faith communities are silent?
On a sunny Saturday morning in midtown Houston, those heavy questions were unpacked during a five-hour seminar called “Day of Dialogue: Racism Today” at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Led by Larry Payne, a man of faith challenging other believers to step up; Cherry Steinwender, a woman who makes her living leading the difficult conversations and Chris Tomlinson, a national writer who aired his family’s dirty secret, the seminar attracted more than 50 people wanting answers or just a chance to begin exploring the difficult conversations in a safe space.
Journalist, author and foreign correspondent Chris Tomlinson knows the power of exploration. The Texas native, who covered oppression in Rwanda and Somalia, looked in his own backyard and discovered his ancestors were the largest slaveholders in Texas.
His grandfather told him the slaves his family owned loved them so much they took the Tomlinson name as their own. His own family history and school teachings led him to believe he came from genteel plantation owners.
The harsh reality that his relatives belonged to the powerful and dangerous secret society of the KKK resulted in his 2014 book called “Tomlinson Hill” chronicling a piece of Texas history of how cotton drove the development of Texas. It is the story of two Tomlinson families one black, one white – a slaveholder and a slave.
“With those in power, one identifies themselves as better than the other in order to subjugate. I saw it in South Africa, in Rwanda, in Somalia… and my own family,” Tomlinson said.
“I know the truth, that my family are rapists and murderers. Do I need to apologize? No, I did not do it, but I acknowledge what they did,” said the Houston Chronicle business columnist who now shines a light on America’s racist history by not romanticizing the past but openly discussing racism and the reality of white privilege.
There is that phrase – white privilege. It is a term that is often met with open disdain or sarcasm by those who don’t feel their complexion affords them different treatment, extended grace or benefit of the doubt, especially if they are struggling financially.
“You can’t understand racism without understanding classism,” explained Steinwender, executive director and co-founder of the Center for the Healing of Racism.
“Right after the Tea Party emerged I wanted to say several things including, “I understand you have lost a lot in this country. You have lost a pension, retirement, a job. I watched this with great passion and sympathized,” said Steinwender.
“What I did not see within the Tea Party or hear from people across the country saying over and over is that yes, you lost, but at the same time this country has always used poor whites to further the racist agenda,” she said.
She gave a history lesson on how the term “whiteness” was embraced as a political term, “from the beginning of the foundation of this country.” So instead of referring to everyone by their ethnicity or nationality, such as German or Belgian or Irish, Caucasians were all called white.
Those who came over as indentured servants had more in common economically with those brought here as slaves. But in order to create a hierarchy of oppression, poor whites were made overseers of slaves but not allowed access to monied white society, she said.
Steinwender, a black woman with a white husband and three adopted children of Asian descent, told of how her husband, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, recognized his own white privilege.
“I’m married and an immigrant. I drive through the streets of this country with a green card and not once have I been asked to prove I belong here,” he said.
Because of the work she does leading dialogue groups of all races on combating racism and teaching listening skills, she said she sometimes feels like her husband is a spy returning home telling her of distressing conversations he has had while in all white spaces and the subject turns to people of color.
She gives him words.
“You don’t have to fight. You plant your feet straight into the ground, look ’em in the eye, take a deep breath and say, ‘what is it about the way that I look that would make you think I think the same way about people of color that you do?,’” she said.
Throughout the day, churchgoers representing multiple communities raised questions on what they could do. Being aware is a start. Challenging inequality is another. Volunteering in the community is a third.
“When good people remain silent, that is a big problem,” Tomlinson said.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation and prides itself on it’s diversity. Payne, however, said the region is racially and economically segregated and should embrace pluralism.
“With diversity you are taught tolerance and counting every person. I tolerate the roaches, the ants, the mosquitoes of Houston as long as they stay in their place. With pluralism every person counts,” he said.
As they consider next steps, Rector Hannah Atkins of Trinity Episcopal called the event “honest, powerful, difficult.”
“There was a myth of a post-racial society after President Barack Hussein Obama won the election,” Payne said. “The pushback you are seeing today is because of those years. Now people’s true and passionate feelings about people of color have been allowed to surface.”