Start a conversation about race and its effects on society, keep it rolling and take action in your own life — first — to stop racism.
That was the consensus at a recent panel discussion called “A Conversation About Race” at Johnson County’s Central Resource Library in Overland Park. About 50 people attended the event, which included panelists from the Missouri side of the area.
The event was geared toward high school teachers and their students but was open to the public.
▪ Carol Burns: filmmaker, photographer, journalist and doctoral student in American film and media studies at the University of Kansas.
▪ Pete Cowdin: artist and co-owner of children’s bookstore Reading Reptile in Kansas City.
▪ Shane Evans: artist and owner of Dream Studio in Kansas City.
▪ Michelle T. Johnson: writer, public speaker and diversity consultant/trainer who writes a column called “Diversity Diva” in The Kansas City Star’s business section.
▪ Uzziel Pecina, assistant professor in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Education.
▪ Bill Tammeus: former columnist and reporter for The Star.
Paul Richardson, an English teacher at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kan., moderated the discussion. He started with an open-ended question: “How has race affected you?”
“I live in America,” Johnson said. “How has race not affected me?”
Johnson, who is African-American, recounted an incident at her private, predominantly white high school in Kansas City. Some classmates were discussing their ACT scores. One asked Johnson about her score, which had ranked her above the 90th percentile in the nation, she said.
“Oh, was that for black students?” Johnson said her classmate had asked her.
Her response: “No, that would be for everybody in the country who took the ACT that day, which would include you.”
“That’s one of those examples of, whether I’m thinking about race, race oftentimes has a way of thinking about me,” Johnson said.
Burns recalled being around 5 when a Census taker had come to her home and asked what race she and her mother were. Her mother said they were Native American. The Census taker’s response: “We’ll just put ‘white.’”
“I know that I’m an Indian,” Burns said. “I know who I am.”
Cowdin, who’s white, described his childhood as “very white-bread.”
“When I got to junior high, it was at the height of busing in the early ’70s, and I was terrified,” he said. “I was scared of black people, because … I didn’t know any black people, and it was very threatening.”
Tammeus described his life at age 5 in Woodstock, Ill., a town of about 7,000 people at the time, “almost all white.”
“We had, actually, one black family and one Jewish family in Woodstock,” he said.
At age 11, Tammeus was part of a Boy Scout troop that for three years in the 1950s put on minstrel shows, “all of that kind of ridiculous stuff, racist stuff.”
“The only reason that I did not appear in one of those minstrel shows was that, at age 11, my parents moved our family to India for two years … and I became a minority,” he said. “And so, I began to get a little more sensitized to what it means to be a minority in a majority culture.”
Later in his life, Tammeus said, as a journalist, he discovered that “this is a really complicated issue.” He went on to write a series of stories for The Star in 1975 about racial turnover in the city and the factors underlying it.
“It has to do with things beyond racism,” he said. “… (W)hen you think about how to define racism and what it is, don’t stop talking, because when you stop talking, you’ll think that’s the last thing to say about it; it’s not. There’s more to say about it, and it’s more complicated than what you just said.”
Pecina said that, as an academic, “when you use the word ‘race,’ I have to put that aside because it doesn’t exist.”
“It’s a social construct,” he said. “It was created by human beings. We aren’t different races. … We were all the same. We’re all part of the human race. We all have cultural identities.”
Pecina grew up in Kansas City’s West Side neighborhood. He had black friends and white friends.
“We had to get along with each other,” he said. “So we learned about each other. We fought with each other. We cried with each other.”