Admitting racism happens

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Lansing Voices

Jennifer Cottrill, Lansing resident

Note: The Lansing Journal covered the June 13 peaceful protest in Lansing, which involved several speeches under the Clock Tower. That article is posted here, and we invited the speakers to submit their speeches to our “Lansing Voices” feature.

Jennifer Cottrill (foreground, left) addressed the crowd as a white ally. “White people living today did not invent racism,” she said. “It is not our fault what happened then—but it is our responsibility as white allies now to acknowledge that we have benefitted from it and to do something about it.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

I am humbled to have been invited to speak about white allyship. And as a white ally who grew up in Lansing, I am daunted to have been invited here today to also speak about the history of racism in Lansing. To do so, I will have to name hard truths that cause me pain and grief and even anger. In writing this for today I have become keenly aware that white allyship is not easy. To do it well, we must use our position of white privilege to name hard truths and make bold calls for change. To do it well, we also must be ambassadors to our white peers, to explain to them the things that Black people are sick of explaining, and meet them where they are with compassion and move them forward, even if that means doing so gradually. We will never do both perfectly. Sometimes we will do or say something wrong, and we must be willing to be wrong, to listen and to change. But now is not the time for silence, for silence is complicity with racism. Now is the time to take the risk and speak, however imperfectly.

The two points on which I have been asked to speak today—allyship and history—are interrelated. Racism is woven into the fabric of our nation’s history. The prosperity of this nation was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, and these acts of violence have repercussions to this day. White people living today did not invent racism; it is not our fault what happened then—but it is our responsibility as white allies now to acknowledge that we have benefitted from it and to do something about it. And the same is true of our local history. If racism has been pervasive in every community and every institution on this continent for the past 400 years, why would we expect Lansing to be any different? We must admit racism happened — and still happens — in Lansing today. We can grieve and be angry that it happened. We can acknowledge times in the past when we were ignorant of it or did less than we could have to stop it. And we can forgive ourselves and open our eyes now to see it and act for change.

I grew up in Lansing in the 1980s, and I remember that I did not go to school with a single Black child until I was in junior high because of the invisible lines of segregated neighborhoods. I grew up in Lansing, and I remember that first semester freshman year at TF South, I sat in the cafeteria with two Black girls and one Korean American girl I knew from junior high. Halfway through the semester a Black girl new to the school came up to our table and said, “I don’t get it. Is this a white table or a Black table?” For the first time, I looked around and saw that no other tables were integrated. I regret to say that when schedules changed for second semester, I sat at an all-white table and did so for the rest of my high school career. I grew up in Lansing, and I remember that the Confederate flag flew over every sporting event at TF South, and I, naively ignorant, never saw it as anything more than a quaint pun on the history of the school—the South breaking away from the North.

I did not know then the story of one of my Black classmates. In 1988, his white-passing aunt purchased a home for their family in Lansing. One week afterward, when the realtor realized that other members of the family had darker skin, the realtor asked the family to sell their house back and move to Lynwood. When they refused, smoke bombs were thrown through their front door, and the words “go home” were burned into their front lawn.

I left Lansing to go to college in 1991, but, with pain, I watched from a distance the turmoil of the next decade. In 1993, a Black congregation reached a tentative agreement to purchase the Lansing Bible Church building on Burnham Avenue, when the Village of Lansing suddenly offered to buy the property as the site of the new Lansing Youth Center. The Black congregation filed a lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to keep a Black church from owning property in Lansing.

In 1994, the population of Black students at TF South had grown to a critical mass to speak up against the Confederate flag — to point out it was not, in fact, just an innocent pun, but a symbol of a war to keep their ancestors enslaved and an emblem around which white supremacists had rallied ever since. When a white ally’s naïve ignorance is challenged with knowledge of a Black person’s experience, the correct response is to say you did not know, say you are sorry, and to do better. And many white people in Lansing did this. But other Lansing residents protested it was their right to keep the symbol of their school and demanded that Black residents change their view of what the flag meant. The naïve ignorance of these Lansing residents had turned to willful ignorance—the refusal to see another’s point of view. The word for such willful ignorance is racism.

In 1997, white students at TF South, based on their perception that the white students had received a harsher punishment than the black students involved in a fight, staged a walk-out and chanted, “white power,” “kill the n_____s,” and “n_____s suck.” They carried the Confederate flag in their protest.

Fast forward 20 years. Racism still exists, although it appears in a somewhat different form. Today, the most visible symptom of racism in America has been the seemingly unending stream of violent acts against Black people by white police officers, and Lansing is not immune. In 2017, a Black teen walked onto the lawn of an off-duty Lansing police officer, who pinned the young man to the ground and choked him while unleashing a stream of profanities. Lansing is not immune.

I am not here to lay guilt specifically on the Lansing Police Department for problems that are much bigger than Lansing. To call out the pattern of police brutality is to acknowledge that the systems and culture of policing across our country are in grave need of change, and that they are just one symptom of the larger virus of racism that has infected all institutions of our society for more than 400 years, and for which we all — including the members of the Lansing Police Department — must work to find a cure.

Why must we all work to cure this disease? Allies, be clear that racism is not just a Black problem, it is a problem that affects all of us. A sick society benefits no person, white or Black. A sick society makes us all weaker. In a sick society, all people live in pain and grief and anger. Do you want to live in a sick society or a well one?

In parting, I call on all white allies to fearlessly declare, “Black lives matter,” and challenge those who respond with, “All lives matter.” Those who fail to understand that the specific threats against Black lives need to be addressed specifically are willfully ignorant, and as I have stated, that is racism. Do use this phrase even if you do not yet understand or support every specific policy stance of the organization Black Lives Matter — or even every specific policy stance that the organizers of this march have put forth. Do keep an open mind and stretch yourself to learn and grow with regard to the solutions that Black Lives Matter and many other anti-racist organizations are proposing. Don’t back down from insisting that Black lives do matter in a society that has acted as if they don’t for so long.

May now be the moment that we finally start to eradicate the virus of racism from our society.

Jennifer Cottrill, Lansing


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2 COMMENTS

  1. While well said, hatred knows no bounds. It is deeper than your pain or my pain and does not discriminate. Red and yellow, black and white, we are all affected. Only when man abhors the hate can we call each other brothers/sisters in Christ. There is no better medicine for the ills of this world than the Love that was first given to us. A solidarity such as this is an impenetrable shield to all that tries to destroy. We have a choice…a free will.

    As a child I was schooled that a Light shines brightest in the darkest of times, that we all have darkness in our lives, and darkness will continue until end times. In what I thought were my darkest hours I was assured that what evil is done to me by man is not because of who I am, but because of who they are that did the evil. This perspective allowed me to reach out to that human being with love and a helping hand to replace their fearful heart with a joyful heart. That is when I discovered that Love conquers all things. Making a friend of your enemy through God and Christ is oh so powerful. This is the fight before us.

    I chose not to give my name to this as it is not for me I write. My glory is to the One who loved me first. Enough so to give up His life for me. For this I am truly blessed.

    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
    John 15:1-27

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