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A Call for Candor

Black History Month speaker decries persistence of racism

by Myra Saturen,

Kamau KenyattaKamau Kenyatta, adjunct professor of history at Northampton Community College (NCC), challenged his audience to look at world-wide racism and white supremacy and recognize its persistence in the post-Civil Rights Era at a talk at the Bethlehem Campus on February 4.    

He introduced his subject by showing clips from three films.  In White People, white youths commented on their awareness or unawareness of white privilege.  In a second film, educator Jane Elliot talked about her blue-eyes/brown eyes exercise, in which children were placed into separate groups by eye color and told that one group was superior to the other.  Quickly, the children fell into discriminatory practices based on what they had been told.  Nevertheless, Elliot said she is convinced that racism is learned and can be unlearned.  A third video showed white students at the University of Oklahoma shouting a racist slur on a bus, unaware that they were being recorded. 

Kenyatta knows such racism/white supremacy firsthand.  "I grew up in South Carolina at a time when racism was overt, obvious and in-your-face," Kenyatta said.  "I remember separate water fountains labeled 'for whites only' and 'for coloreds.' " He recalls going to his town's sole doctor's office, which had segregated entrances and a division marking separate sections of the reception area.  "The message conveyed and was intended to convey a message to both black and white people.  It was unambiguous and crystal clear," he said.  "Those classified as white were deemed superior and important. Meanwhile, the supposed inferiority of black people was reinforced and supported." 

Kenyatta's grandfather and all black men were expected to call white men "Mister," while even white children addressed black adults by their first names.  If black men did not follow these social protocols, the results would be swift, sure and devastating.  White people owned or managed all the businesses in Kenyatta's town, while black people with better skills and qualifications were relegated to unskilled occupations so that a black person could never be in a supervisory position in relation to any white person. 

"When I moved to New Jersey, I continued to experience racism, including a brutal encounter on my first job out of college, " Kenyatta said, indicating that it is still part of his experience fifty years later.  "Racism and white supremacy are a fact and fabric of America and the Western World.  I've seen it  take both crude and very sophisticated forms."

How does one define racism? Kenyatta asked.  He said that racism is a doctrine or belief that one or one's group is superior to another's because of skin color. This doctrine results in a system giving white people privileges denied to people who are not white-skinned.   

Kenyatta traced racism and white supremacy back to eighteenth-century Europeans, the first people to classify other humans according to race, with "Caucasians" always topping the list.    

"There is no honest discussion of racism and white supremacy in America today," Kenyatta said.  "Black people are not honest when they talk to white people.  Honesty has caused careers to be cut short, accusations of preaching hate to be made, and murders to be committed, such as those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers."  At the same time, most white people do not consider themselves racist, Kenyatta added.  Another myth he debunked is that there was ever a time of racial harmony in America's past.  "My people, my ancestors, have been fighting racism ever since we've been in America."  He also feels that Martin Luther King's mission has become distorted over time: King was fighting specifically for black people and against white supremacy. 

"Some people think that President Barack Obama's election indicates a post-racial society," he commented.  Kenyatta countered that notion with the fact that Obama has been subjected to insults and disdain based on his race. "The shootings of black men by police officers further disqualify the present as a time as one of racial harmony."

Kenyatta believes that our educational system is at the root of racism.  The contributions of black people around the world are ignored in the classroom, while Europeans are wrongly given credit for all global accomplishments.  He emphasized that the notion of black racism is ahistorical, that it is an idea his grandparents would have found incredulous. 

Asked how he would grade America today, he said that formerly he would have given it an "F." Now he gives it a "D minus." 

How can racism/white supremacy be eliminated?  A starting point, he said, is to examine what is being taught and not taught in schools. Frank and inclusive discussion is another route.   

Kenyatta's talks are part of NCC's observance of Black History Month.  He will also speak on Thursday, February 11, at 11:00 a.m., in Room 108, Pocono Hall, NCC Monroe Campus, 2411 Route 715, Tannersville.  

In addition to teaching at NCC, Kenyatta is the CEO of Touch the Sky Marketing and a nationally recognized speaker and author.  His latest book is The Confessions of a College Professor: Insider Secrets To Making Top Grades In All Your Classes.