Mará Rose Williams: Sons teach me that the fight against racism takes different paths

Mara Williams with Jordan and Trey
Mara Williams with Jordan and Trey The Kansas City Star

I’ve been immersed in writing and reading about racial issues on college campuses.

And then the hoopla over the lack of diversity in Hollywood got me thinking: What do my sons — being the handsome young black men that they are — see as their role in this struggle for racial equality and tolerance?

So I asked them.

For the most part, they agree with what my oldest, Trey, told me: “My race does not define me, but rather my education, my work ethic, my compassion and my passions do.”

But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been called the N-word or been followed through the store by a clerk who’s watching his every move.

“Those people are ignorant,” he said, adding that he just chooses not to engage with folks like that. He puts them in the category with knuckleheads who are nasty to someone who is overweight, or practices a certain religion, or is gay and on and on.

Both of my young men said they are quite comfortable talking race with friends or colleagues who are just misinformed but who are smart enough, and willing enough, to be corrected, to learn, to hear another perspective. And they said they are all too willing to teach. I was kind of blown away that they have the insight to recognize the difference between the learners and the losers.

Good for them.

Trey went to college in Maryville — “a small town in northern Missouri. Farm country,” is how he described it. He wasn’t that alarmed when he saw rebel flags there. “Consider your surroundings,” he said. And Jordan, my youngest, is at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Some rebel flags definitely fly there.

What bugs them, though, are microaggressions, “when people say such things as, ‘Wow, you speak well,’ or ‘Wow, you dress well,’ because they’re surprised that a young black man like me speaks so well or that I don’t wear my pants on the ground,” Trey said.

Jordan said he talks about race fairly often with his buddies, a collection of international, black, white, Hispanic and Asian-American students.

He made me laugh, telling me about his white friend greeting him with a high five and this: “Hey, what’s up my (N word).” Jordan immediately snatched back his hand and said, “No. No one talks to me that way. I don’t talk to anyone else that way and I don’t respond to that at all. That is not cool and for me not at all acceptable.” Jordan wasn’t angry, just firm. His friend apologized and has never done it again.

The real dividing line at Vanderbilt is money. Students and even faculty assume everyone there went to a private high school and has wealthy parents. Jordan doesn’t fit into either of those categories.

“But what saves me, Mom, is that I’m smart,” Jordan said. “And everyone here likes smart.”

All their young lives their dad regaled them with stories of his civil rights protesting days. They are well aware of systemic racism and racism in general. They know it when they see it.

But they don’t believe their role in the struggle for inclusion and equality is to march or tote signs. Rather, they said, their role is to be successful black men, defy the myths, teach when they can, rise, change from the top and meet their marching brothers and sisters on the other side of the mountain.

I can live with that.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419,, @marawilliamskc