Special Assignment: The Racial Divide

Written by Shelley Russell, Multimedia Journalist

You don't have to look past local and national headlines to see a racial divide still exists in the country.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Terry Stevens, a human rights activist and diversity consultant in Waterloo.

"If we don't talk about race and the impact that it's having on people of color, we will never get beyond where we are now," she said.

Stevens warns that talking about race doesn't mean you're a racist or a victim of racism; rather, she said it means you're honest.

"I keep talking about race and discrimination and injustice because if you don't talk about them, they will only get worse," she said.

On Being "Colorblind:"
Zorana Wortham-White is a mother of eight, a diversity consultant and an attorney in Waterloo; she identifies herself as a "proud black woman."
She said the biggest problem in the state is people pretending to be what she calls "colorblind."

"I think colorblindness is probably one of the worst things that people can say to someone without realizing that it's a negative concept," said Wortham-White.

According to the US Census Report, 93 percent of Iowa is white and 3 percent is black.

The US Census Report indicates the city of Waterloo is 77 percent white and 15 percent black, while the city of Des Moines is 76 percent white and 10 percent black.

Dubuque's population, however, is more parallel to the statewide population with the US Census Report indicating it is 91 percent white and 4 percent black.

"We have to consider that race is a reality in this society that we live in, and because of that, you cannot be colorblind," she added.
Meanwhile, Stevens said if people say they can't see someone's skin color, they're lying.

"How can you not see color when color is right in front of you? You notice if someone is crippled. You notice if someone is smiling or if they're frowning. You notice these things. They're visible. So why do we deny that a person has color? And even more importantly, why is color a problem?" she asked.
She said recognizing someone's skin color is not a bad thing, and it's different than being racist.

On Racism:
Stevens and Wortham-White agree racism is a struggle in Iowa.
Stevens said her oldest son was given detention time at his elementary school in Waterloo after the teacher said he was "walking too confidently."
"I still have the note at home," she said.

"The struggle is alive. You just keep struggling, and you don't let anybody break you down. It's not always easy to stand up and speak out. But I refuse to let anybody break my back. I wasn't put down here to be a slave. I wasn't down here to be a victim of a condescending society."
Wortham-White, a mother of eight children, said it's especially difficult for her boys.

"We have a lot of stressors that we deal with on a daily basis that a lot of people sometimes don't have to deal with," she said.

"Right now for example, with my son I have to make sure that his car, when he's driving, it has all the lights functioning because I don't want him to be stopped as an African American male, and when he's coming over to certain areas of town I tell him, 'don't go over there at this time of night because I don't want you to be stopped by the police,' you know, just these type of things," she said.

On Employment:
"Nobody has to follow the rule of being like Caucasians just because Caucasians say that's what we should be. We want to be who are are, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with us. We are a beautiful people," she said.

Stevens admits she'd live a different life as a white woman.
"I believe that if I were a Caucasian female with the skills, the quality, the education, the experiences that I have, I'd be somewhere in the corporate level. As an African American woman, I'm shut out because I speak against injustice regularly. I am shut out because I'm employable but I'm not controllable, and that's what they want. They want someone they can control who will speak to the agenda of 'White America,' and I'm not that person," she said.

Still, Stevens said she is proud of her heritage.

"I have no problem being a beautiful black woman," she said. "I love who I am. I love that about my people. I love the vibrancy of African Americans. I love our language. I love our rhythms. I love all of that."
Meanwhile, Wortham-White said she knows it's hard for many African Americans to get jobs.

She said friends of hers have made the decision to revise their resumes by omitting any affiliations with what many people view as "black groups" or human rights organizations.

But she said the struggle to make it professionally is difficult because of her skin color.

"People are surprised I'm an attorney as if the idea that you would have an African American female attorney here in the Cedar Valley is something that's foreign, you know. People are surprised that I can handle a case or that I know what I'm doing on a case," said Wortham-White.
She said black people overall, have obstacles they have to overcome living and working in this area of the country.

"We have a lot of stressors on a daily basis that we deal with. When we wake up in the morning, everyday we get up, we know that we're African American. That's a conscious thought in our mind that 'OK, I'm black. What I am going to have to deal with today?' I mean, there are situations where I get up and say, ' What am I going to have to deal with today as a black woman?"

Stevens agreed and said, "You can walk throughout this community in both the public and private sectors and see no people of color working anywhere, and that's the vast majority of the businesses in this community. Whether it's College Square, whether it is Crossroads, whether it is downtown Waterloo, you don't see faces of color in too many places."

On the School System:
"Opening a book in the school system and some of the stories...a lot of times they don't have a large representation of African Americans or people of color. Just looking at the people that are in those fields teaching, you don't have a large representation of people of color, but yet the people that you're serving -- you do have a large population of people of color, so it's just those types of things," said Wortham-White on the "whiteness" of the school systems in Iowa.

Stevens said it's more than just teachers and books that contribute to racial disparities in the school system.

"Why is it that African American students participate primarily in football and basketball and, to a large degree, track? Why are they not represented in other extra-curricular activities? Why are they not represented in advanced placement classes? And why is it that the programs that are focusing on African American youth are primarily punitive programs, programs of controlling these individuals rather than helping them to open up their minds and learn?" she asked.

Stevens said the word "equality" is tossed around often, but most school districts are only widening the gap between races.

"Equal means I have what you have. Equal does not mean we can put 20-plus acres of a school over here, while over here we give you 1.5 acres. That's not equal, and it's not equitable either, but it happens. It happens all th etime. You can look at the school district in Waterloo. Why is it that now they want to add this whole thing of weighted grades in advanced placement classes? There's already a huge gap between Caucasian students and students of color who are involved in those advanced placement classes. Well, when you add these heighted grades, all you're doing is increasing the gap. And why are you not adding heighted grades everywhere? If you think that these are important, than why isn't it across the board?" she asked.

On Diversity and Recognizing Prejudice:
Kimberly O'Day, a counselor in Oelwein, identifies herself as a white woman and believes recognizing prejudices is important.

O'Day was in the first ROTC class at the University of Northern Iowa and was the first woman commissioned as an officer from the program in 1983.
O'Day attended one of the most intense diversity trainings in the country at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI).

It was here where O'Day said she spent weeks in a classroom environment learning about her own prejudices and the prejudices of others.

"Then my eyes were really opened to what a transformation it takes to really understand differences and sameness," she said.

O'Day said she learned quickly that the notion of "colorblindness" is an insult.

"It's the first thing that we see," she said.

"Obviously the first thing that we do is perceive with our eyes, and so we make perceptual shortcuts to categorize information that we're getting from our senses so that's how we begin to determine sameness and differences," she added.

O'Day said she learned how important race is during her time at DEOMI.
"It really is a big part of who we are. It defines who people are. It defines their world view. It's how they see the world," she said.

O'Day admits skin color is sometimes uncomfortable to talk about for some people.

"We're afraid of our own prejudice. We're afraid we'll be judged. We're afraid that our prejudice will slip out and we don't want people to know that we have prejudice. And all of us do. If we can admit that, we're further ahead in the game because it's not something you have to hide," she said.

Looking Ahead:
"My hope for the future is that people can see other peoples' ethnicities and cultures and races and appreciate them for who they are as a person without trying to see past that. That people can actually look and recognize that I'm an African American woman and be OK with that, and not feel threatened by it, not say, 'Well, I can't look because if I look at her as an African American woman, I'm going to treat her different,' but look at me and just be OK with fine with that," said Wortham-White.



Building bridges of understanding and common interest among members


     ©2020 Workforce Diversity Network. All rights Reserved. Privacy Policy