Beginning in early childhood, we absorb spoken and unspoken messages about the world and the types of people in it. Unexamined, these messages provide the underpinnings of bias, racism, and a divisive, unjust society. The antidote is found in personal reflection, awareness, and a willingness to learn.
By Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board Chair
The year 2020 was indeed a year of unexpected occurrences. COVID-19 struck and it seemed to function as the spark to a year of chaos. My intention is not to downplay the serious nature of the virus or the millions of people adversely affected. For me, however, one of the most upsetting series of events centered around a resurgence of racism and prejudices, and specifically, hate.
The virus outbreak stimulated verbal and physical attacks against Asians worldwide. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd by police officers seemed to awaken the world to the fact that racism was still alive. Over the year, it became apparent to me that there was no resurgence — it was always there, just hidden, less out in the open and overt than it is now.
In SWE, we discuss unconscious bias and how it affects women in the workplace and the world. But racism is not unconscious bias; it is very deliberate and very aware.
I began to think more about my own biases, conscious and unconscious. I’ve known that I have some biases, no matter how hard I try to avoid them. It is a challenge that many, if not all, of us struggle with, and I believe much of it stems from our upbringing and life experiences. To say that we have no biases, however, seems to me both unrealistic and to be in denial.
I grew up in Detroit in the 1960s. I was young and very naïve about the world around me, sheltered by loving and caring parents. I was unaware of world events such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the beginning of the Vietnam War. However, this all changed during the 1967 Detroit riots. We lived less than 10 miles from the location where the riots began, and two specific events stand out in my 7-year-old memory from that summer. One evening, my grandmother came by; her house was just three blocks away from ours. She was shaken and told my parents how her car had been beaten by numerous Black (not the word she used) individuals with baseball bats while she was driving home.
I also remember my father sleeping on our living room floor with his shotgun for several nights until the violence passed. These are vague memories, reinforced with stories over the years, and I don’t really recall many other details. In retrospect, however, I believe this was my first introduction to racism. This was strange to me at the time. We had a “colored” (the accepted term used at that time) cleaning lady, Lucille, who also babysat my sister and me when my parents went out. I remember her rocking me to sleep with love and care.
The following year, we moved to the Detroit suburbs — the very white suburbs, although my naiveté didn’t allow me to see it that way until high school. Lucille still came to the house once a week to help my mom and to occasionally babysit. She took a bus from Detroit and my mom would pick her up from the bus stop. I have fond memories of eating tomato soup (really hot, the way she liked it) and grilled cheese sandwiches with her for lunch.
Grade school and middle school passed without much thought on such heavy topics as racism or biases. I recall numerous negative comments by my grandmother about Black people, and I internally defended them by what she had experienced during the riots. Our neighborhood/township was very mixed religiously and ethnically — a large number of Jewish and, over time, Middle Eastern residents — but not racially. Being raised white and Catholic, I noted the differences, but since they didn’t affect me directly, I really gave it no thought. Two of my best friends were Jewish (and twins), and we never really talked about religion. I do, however, recall my parents discussing a number of Middle Eastern businesses — they referred to all Middle Eastern people as “Arabs” — and how they never accepted anything but cash as payment, “so they didn’t have to pay taxes.” Because I remember it vividly, I believe that was the first comment that ever made me think of defining another person on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, or religion. When we are young, the things our parents and the adults around us say can have profound effects. We tend to believe what they say and trust their opinions. It isn’t until later in life that we begin to question such things.
Expanding my awareness
My sheltered youth expanded a bit when a Black family moved into the area, and their four children attended my high school. Two of the girls (again twins) were in my class, and one of them tried out for and made the varsity basketball team. Basketball was my passion in high school, and Cherolyn was a welcome addition to the team because she was a great player. That was all I really thought of it at the time. We became teammates, but not really friends. We didn’t have any classes together, and I was incredibly shy then and did not make friends easily. It wasn’t until this past summer, after a long conversation with my best friend from high school, who was much closer to Cherolyn, that I became aware of the challenges Cherolyn and her family experienced: the racial slurs and the attempts made to prohibit her family from buying a house in the area. I was naively unaware of any of these issues until this past year. It is this awareness and a desire to become more aware that has truly made a difference in who I am and who I want to be.
Between all the racist and political posts on social media this past year, I took a couple “time-outs” from social media to simply maintain my sanity. I’ve never understood hatred, and all of the hate-type posts were deeply affecting me emotionally and mentally. After a post on Facebook telling my friends I was checking out for a bit, an acquaintance replied with an interesting video from Netflix called “13th.” As I watched this eye-opening video, I began to clearly realize how much I don’t know about history in general and, more specifically, Black history.
When I returned to Facebook, I stumbled upon a series of posts from former NFL player Emmanuel Acho — “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.” He has since written a book of the same name, which I recently ordered. These video conversations include candid discussions among multiracial participants. These too opened my eyes to the many issues, further sparking my desire to learn more and to be better informed.
One of Acho’s posts discusses the difference between being “non-racist” (not racist) and “anti-racist” (actively fighting against racism). This was very revealing to me as I quickly realized that, although I never considered myself racist, I also wasn’t “anti-racist.” I’ve lived my life around many races and ethnicities since moving to Akron, Ohio, and working at The University of Akron, both of which maintain a diverse population. However, I never really reached out to understand these individuals of different backgrounds and experiences. I never asked our Black students about their experiences or how I could help them in a more meaningful way. I consciously avoided such interactions as they would be “uncomfortable conversations.” I regret that now. I regret not being aware enough to talk to Lucille about her experiences and background. I loved her and she loved me; that seemed to be enough. I regret not knowing Cherolyn better or talking to her about her life more.
Regrets will not make a difference in the world, however, and I want to make a difference. I no longer choose to be simply non-racist. I choose to be anti-racist.
Mary C. Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, is an associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at The University of Akron. She is chair of the SWE editorial board, was named SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator in 2007, received the Society’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award in 2011, and became a SWE Fellow in 2016.