Sharing with you things that are on my mind...Maybe yours too. Come back to Wrights Lane for a visit anytime!

04 October, 2010

SOME LAST WORDS ON DISCRIMINATION ISSUE OF THE PAST...AND PRESENT

Here I go again.  One last "housekeeping" effort in my racial discrimination tangent of the past two weeks.

I have been advocating an apology or statement of reconciliation as a symbolic gesture to finally address incidents of racial discrimination in my home town of Dresden in the first half of the last century.  My efforts culminated with a Letter to the Editor published in the Chatham Daily News (see below) this past weekend that has been greeted with typical mixed reaction.

It is my contention that, as with so many other cases of man's inhumanity towards man (i.e. treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War 11 and abuse of First Canadian children in residential schools) apologies by government bodies offer distinct mechanisms for addressing past wrong-doing in our country and facilitating ultimate humane and harmonious relations.

Generally, society today pays lip service to being colourblind and it is an honourable trend.  In theory, the motivation to be colourblind is very noble — treating people equally without regard to their skin color, race/ethnicity, or national origin. The problem is that this individual-level motivation is not reinforced at the institutional level, where people of color are still disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power (entertainment and sports the exception) and in fact, still encounter many forms of discrimination and inequality.  All of which tends to add fuel to the simmering hurts of years past -- hurts that carry over from generation to generation.

All I am suggesting is a proven official method of levelling the playing field just a bit more and dispensing, hopefully, with many of the inherited hurts.  But as you will see in responses to my newspaper letter, not everyone shares my conviction.  It is suggested that it is easy to apologize, but more meaningful to put words into benevolent action.  There is a popular belief that time will heal the wounds of racial discrimination of the past while there are those who put faith in the ability of society to learn from past wrong-doings and to "extrapolate" that to the world.  All very simple answers to what continues to be one of the most complex problems in society today.

Maybe there is a way of packaging all of the well-intended theories into an effective course of action that will be acceptable to all segments of society.  If such a magical concept is possible, it will take a super human commitment and energy to implement, far beyond my limited creativity and intellect to comprehend.

I hate to think that this is a challenge beyond any singular human being, or group of humans; but I am leaning in that direction and I admit to a degree of disillusionment.  We're talking about something very deep-rooted here and a subliminal resistance that is virtually unreachable.  In lieu of something better, all any of us can do is to follow our hearts and to let our consciences be our guide...But isn't that what we've been doing all along?...See what I mean!

I have decided to publish (names deleted) responses to the issue that I have received this past weekend.  If studied carefully, I think you will get a feeling for the differing views that exist and how complex and contradictory the matter really is.  In all cases I have offered a reply.  The fact that I have yet to hear from any Black friends may also tell you something.

 *Dick: I was not very familiar with the actual things going on in the 50's. Until I came to Lambton-Kent in the 60's, I wasn't really attuned to what went on in Dresden. As has been said many times, Dresden is a quiet town and everyone is concerned for the welfare of their neighbours but they do not have to shout it out to the rest of the world. Even though a formal apology has maybe never been uttered there have been many apologies expressed in the hugs when they were needed, the words of encouragement when things weren't going right, help with food or babysitting when there was a need. The plaque that was erected this year to honour the National Civil Rights Movement and Hugh Burnett came about with support of the families of the key players of that era. It is very easy to say "I'm sorry" but the actions of many in this community have expressed it more effectively and meaningfully than just the words. For these reasons this is why I feel you are getting little feedback.


My reply: You are right about actions speaking louder than words. Certainly you have demonstrated that time and time again in your personal life and you are to be commended for that. As a family in the 1940s, the Wrights did not have much, but we helped feed and clothe one large, needy Black family in particular and my barber dad cut Black kids' hair in the back kitchen of our home when it was not acceptable to do so in the downtown shop (Fords) where he worked. I speak now for those who were not, and have not been for various reasons, in a position to deliver the hugs and encouragement of which you speak. Maybe I'm being selfish in expressing myself publicly in this way, but it is sincere and I feel better for having done it. Lack of response does not really worry me...My hope is that there are a few individuals out there who will accept my gesture as it was intended.


*No apologies required by anyone. Most of those involved at that time have passed on. There is no doubt it was a difficult time in the old hometown back then, but I believe time has healed most wounds.


My reply: Because I am an idealist I would like to think that time does heal most wounds. The key word here is MOST. It's the lingering, simmering wounds that cut the deepest and pass from generation to generations that I worry about.


*A large part of Dresden was not even born in 1954 and aren't responsible for actions of the 30s, 40s or 50's when popular culture and laws were different. They've been fortunate to enter a period in history when blacks are able to excel in entertainment, sports, business and politics like never before. Man's ignorant inhumanity to man will continue, just change face, so the best lesson is to extrapolate what we learned from the sorry episodes you describe, to the world now and monitor ourselves accordingly.


My reply: Your unsigned message sounds strangely similar to the previous comment (re. present generation not being responsible...). The point I try to make is that, as members of a community, country or group, each succeeding generation is implicated by association and thereby "responsible" for what transpires, past and present. If mistakes are made, it behooves all of us to assume the task of reconciliation and recompense, all in the name of responsible citizenship. We should leave no stone unturned in our efforts to diminish man's ignorant inhumanity to man.


*Thanks for the hook-up to your article on Racial Discrimination. I read it and found it interesting, especially in this present-day atmosphere. I watched the little film you had embedded on your site and while watching it, I recognized my mother and her sister coming out of the post office. What a surprise. So I sat her down and we watched it again together. She recognized a few people, and she was very surprised to see herself. She doesn't even remember them making the film. Thanks for all the research you do and for all your blogs and stories. They really help piece together the times and memories of a home town that is the heart of your family.


My reply: Much appreciated ---. I know for a fact that your grandfather and uncles were very much synonymous with "heart" in Dresden for many years. Say hi to your dear mom.


*Dresden would not be Dresden if it was not interracial because when the slaves went there it only got bigger. People may disagree with me but I have never been a racist and never will.


My reply: Good for you young man. At least I have made you think about how you relate to other races of people. I fail to grasp your initial point, however.

*My mother-in-law's childhood friend is Trish, Hugh Burnett's daughter. Myself, my husband, my three step children, and my mother-in-law and her friends all went to the ceremony for the plaque unveiling this summer. It was a nice ceremony and I was blessed to meet some very interesting people and share in some good food. There was music, speakers and native costumes. My husband and I went there to support Trish but also to expose the kids to the past and let them get a taste for what happened so long ago. I hope they learned something. I'm glad that I went. My father was born in Dresden but didn't grow up there, yet I still feel a strong tie due to a lot of my ancestors being buried there. They obviously dealt with these issues as well. I have no idea if they took part in any of this but I definitely feel bad if they did. I think it's terrible to be judged for the colour of your skin. It's truly what's on the inside that counts.

My reply: You are truly someone who cares. I am sure your support and friendship was most appreciated by the Burnett family and others. Your children, too, will be the better for having had the exposure.

*Thanks for the courage of your convictions Dick. You've got guts to find the words to express what has been on my mind since we were classmates but have been unable to adequately express. With your experience, I am sure your are prepared for some backlash because there will be those who fail to understand your point, I'm sorry to say. Your position is valid. Do not be deterred.


My reply: I hoped I would hear from you ---. We had talked before about how we could deal with this issue long after the fact. I know of your sincerity and interest in the welfare of your fellow man. I am glad that you approve of my public expressions but doesn't it all seems so very insignificant now? At least we tried. I'm sleeping a little better at nights...How about you?


A CONCLUDING NOTE:  I do not want to beat this subject to death and for now will not be publishing any further comments or reaction. I will be taking a blogging break for a while, but owe one last apology -- this time to my wife for my being so neglectful and distracted these past few weeks as I immersed myself in a period of history that I was unable to influence 60-65 years ago and am still not able to influence today.
 
I now have a somewhat better feeling of what it is like to be in a minority -- to be insignificant and inconsequential.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
My published letter has also drawn some reaction from detractors on the web site of the Chatham Daily News and I am left a bit disappointed that somehow I have failed to make my point understandable. I get the distinct impression that there are those who  would deny me, and be critical of, my right to express myself on an issue of such historical importance. Is there something wrong in planting a conciliatory seed and to offer a challenge? I would never think to dismiss someone else's personal, heartfelt expression because it does not necessarily apply to me as I perceive life today. I respect and validate opposing views and have always tried to look at both sides of an issue and seriously consider circumstances as they have unfolded with due compassion and understanding. I am disillusioned by many of the views expressed in this awkward debate where personal idealism, generalities and irrelevancies have prevailed. I honestly felt that, as Canadians, we were capable of owning our past, acting on that past and moving beyond the past. Sorry to say that the more things change, the more they have remained the same. Buying in to the philosophy of several who would have nothing to do with ownership of the past because of where we stand today, I might well say to Black friends, "We (Whites) have created a more accepting world where you can and do excel. Of course it has taken years of struggling on your part, litigation, legislation and overcoming untold obstacles and belittlement, to get to where you are today. But aren't we wonderful for extrapolating experience and allowing you to gain a semblance of your rightful equality in the world. We've never told you openly, but as God is our witness, we apologize in our hearts every day for the injustices that you and your forefathers have endured over the years. And in case you haven't noticed, we have been acting differently too. We have never actually asked you, but we are sure(?) that you and those who have gone before, have put aside more than a century of deep hurts and resentments and that you are now as proud of yourself as we are of ourselves." I speak, of course, with forked-tongue. But heaven help us, generally we could never reveal ourselves in that way. We are too aloof and superior, too caught up in self-righteousness. We think that our actions, real or imagined, speak louder than words and that's where we get into trouble. None are so blind as those who cannot see...and are unable to speak with the courage of convictions.

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ANOTHER NOTE FROM A FRIEND
HI DICK: For what it is worth, be assured you have a vote of thanks from me for all your efforts. I think you have done a great job of making a difference. Thank you for giving us in Dresden your thought-provoking insights the last few years. I have enjoyed them a great deal.

Well done, Jarv C.

02 October, 2010

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: MY LETTER EXPLAINS CALL FOR AN APOLOGY

Count me among the majority who at one time felt it absolutely unnecessary to apologize for the many
transgressions of past generations, particularly when it came to matters of physical abuse at the hands of those in authority, denial of rights and blatant racial discrimination.


I justified my almost hollier-than-thou attitude with the fact that I never physically abused anyone, actively denied anyone of their rights or knowingly discriminated against anyone.  Heck, there have even been times when I went out of my way to be humane in the treatment of others and demonstrably charitable when the occasion called for it.

If a particular situation was bad enough, let those responsible apologize for it if need be, but leave me out of it!  I'm alright, Charlie!

But, you know what?  I was not raised that way.  While it is very easy to distance myself from the wrongs of the society in which I live, I confess to the constant necessity to remind myself of the Christian themes of mercy and forgiveness and the very real need for genuine compassion toward others.

We are not disconnected from history or the rest of the world.  There is no escaping the fact that we are part of a world-wide community and as such we must accept full responsibility for what that membership entails -- both good and bad. 

There is no out of sight out of mind excuse than can work for mistakes and injustices of the past. The connection to wrongdoing is there and if we have compassion at all for those who have been adversely affected, we will take responsibility to apologize if not make amends.

I, and so many of my school chums, were innocently privy to something that would later in life be labelled as racial discrimination in my hometown of Dresden in the 1940s and '50s.  As a White kid, discrimination was never an issue in the classroom, the Boy Scout hall, the ball diamond or skating rink.  I cannot speak for my Black friends, however, because it was a different story for them and members of their families who were being denied certain civil rights which have been well documented in recent Wrights Lane posts and extensive news reports of the period.

It was not until well into my teens that I began to realize the full impact that racial discrimination was having on my Black friends.  It has taken me almost 60 years to finally act on my conscience, to say to the Black citizens of Dresden, past and present (the Burnetts, Hansons, Handsors, Carters, Wallaces, Lambkins, Cooks, Brownings, Ropers, McCorkles, Crosbys, Solomans, Grineages, Rykmans, Talbots, Scotts, Browns, Tanners, Melbournes, Travises, Dudleys, et al: "Once again, on behalf of my forefathers and respective generations, I am truly sorry!"

There are those who insist that an apology is not necessary and are critical of me for bringing this all to light yet again.  There is a prevailing misconception that apologies imply some personal culpability that is to be avoided.  One critic suggests that half the current town of Dresden today were not yet born in the 1940s and '50s, but hopefully this does not mean that we ignore, or write off, the other half of the population that lived in and through the era in question.

It is true that people of colour today live in a world of equal (almost?) opportunity and have risen to great heights in the fields of medicine, politics, religion, entertainment and sports, but the White segment of the population cannot claim any credit for the transition...Blacks have fought for every bit of what they have achieved.  To their credit, they did it in spite of us and injustices of the past.  They have truly overcome.

I took all of the foregoing into consideration when submitting the following letter to the Chatham Daily News this week (published Friday, Oct. 1st.).  I owed it to the Black folk of my generation, if none other...And to my White brethren as well. 

May we be forgiven, for we knew not what we did.  Could it be that some of us still don't?
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September 26, 2010

The Chatham News,
Letter to The Editor

Re: Thoughts on racial discrimination from first-hand experience

Dear Sir:

I noted with interest last month several historical flashback features casting the spotlight on the racial discrimination issue that existed in the Town of Dresden at one time. The articles by local historians were obviously in conjunction with the unveiling of an Ontario Heritage Trust plaque at Uncle Tom's Cabin commemorating the efforts of civil rights activist Hugh R. Burnett and the National Unity Association, some 60-65 years after the fact.

When it comes to history-related topics I have found that people tend to develop their own interpretations based on a degree of personal comfort. Current beliefs, social trends and racial background cannot help but play an influential role in how we perceive a past event or period in history. The passage of time does soften harsh reality in many cases. Then too, human nature often dictates suppression, or turning a blind eye to certain historical facts that tend to complicate or compromise beliefs and remembrances. Certainly there is a prevailing apathy and disinterest that accompanies the various traditional views of history.

I recently uncovered an old National Film Board of Canada production which sought answers to the long-standing colour-bar racial discrimination issue in my aforementioned hometown of Dresden in 1954. The 30-minute film graphically illustrated the prevailing concerns and attitudes of the period, some of which were quite disturbing by today's societal standards. As an active "blogger", I reviewed the film and asked readers of my computer web sites if they thought an official apology of some kind was due our Black friends and neighbours of that period. To date I have had disappointing, but not too surprising, minimal response from Dresden readers in particular.

It goes without saying that the racial discrimination issue was and is a sensitive subject in this small, tightly-knit community. A generation has passed, as has the colour-bar issue (thanks to legislation and litigation of the 1950s). Life has carried on, a little more freely and humanely for some; others never fully understanding what all the fuss was about in the first place. The matter is, as they say, history.

My worry is that a serious racial wrong has never been properly and publicly acknowledged by the town and that Black people of that troubled period deserve an official apology for the rights that were denied them and members of their families, many of whom have long since passed away. To me it is a classic case of man's ignorant inhumanity to man. I do not condemn nor condone the eight or nine Dresden business owners who denied service to Black people in the first half of the last century; they were otherwise good citizens who simply held fast to what they believed were "rights" of their own, as prejudicial as they may have been.

As one who was born and raised in Dresden back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, I share the real shame with those who chose to ignore racial discrimination in their midst, who did not open their church doors and hearts, who would boycott certain businesses and issue life-altering death threats.

What I humbly suggest now to all Dresdenites and other residents of the Kent Country area, is to take a moment to put themselves in the shoes of their Black neighbours and to ask how they would react under similar circumstances if roles were reversed and what it would mean to them and the memory of late loved ones, if their community collectively said "we are sorry!" There is no better way to understand a situation than to assume the yoke of another.

Any apology which is sincere and real always makes things better, heals wounds and resentment, and strengthens and lengthens relationships. I have felt "sorry" for first-hand deep hurt and embarrassment of a teenager ever since my friend was refused a butterscotch milkshake in a Dresden restaurant one hot summer evening 56 years ago and I've never known how to convey those feelings. The typical mistaken assumption in racial relations is that if you are silent long enough, and ignore an issue long enough, the matter will eventually go away. Make no mistake about it, however, there are many "matters" lingering slightly under the surface in today's society and will continue to simmer there for generations to come.

To my friend now, and all others whose rights were similarly denied and thusly relegated to second-class citizen status because of the colour of their skin, I for one sincerely apologize. I want to help make centuries of hurt and resentment go away, if ever so minimally.

How about the rest of Dresden? How about the municipal Council of Chatham-Kent acting on behalf of all citizens of the community in issuing a long overdue and much deserved apology?

Better late than never to heal old wounds and injustices. Wouldn't we all, with our varying degrees of skin tone, feel much better for having been included in a precedent-setting act of conciliation for all the world to witness? I think our forefathers would be the first to thank us and we could all rest just a little easier.

Respectfully,
Dick Wright