A Tribute to my father, John Isaacs on Father’s Day 2020
Six years ago, I had my last conversation with my Dad. He slept his way into eternity two weeks later, having the final chapter of his life on this earth ended by Alzheimer’s disease.
Father’s Day brings back many memories our long conversations throughout every stage of my life. His wisdom simply expressed and explained continues to serve me well.
Violence and awareness
“Violence begets violence,” he would say when things were getting out of hand in my spats with my older sister. As an educator, he would lecture my sister and me about the virtues of talking things out to clear up misunderstandings.
As an adult, whenever I mentioned to my father that I was not able to clear up misunderstandings with other people through the ‘talk things out’ approach, he would always say, “We are all acting at our level of awareness.” “We cannot understand what we do not know or what we are not aware of. The ‘we’ is two-sided, understanding must work both ways.”
Violence begets violence.
We are all acting at our level of awareness.
The connection between Daddy’s two maxims was patently evident in Nelson Mandela’s biography Long Walk to Freedom.
Nelson Mandela never intended for violence to be the pathway to racial equality. Those who opposed racial equality used violence to enforce the system of apartheid. Mr. Mandela said, “The armed struggle was forced on us by the government.” He was also quoted as saying that “Armed action would continue as a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid.”
In 1960, Mr. Mandela was jailed because he refused to renounce violence as an option to achieve racial equality with a government that had no interest in dialogue or negotiations with Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). Freedom came more than twenty-six years later, only when the South African government understood that apartheid was wrong, unsustainable and had to be dismantled.
The current violent protests throughout the USA and the world are a response to the continuing physical and psychosocial brutalization experienced by Black people in the USA and in other parts of the world.
The threats to use military-type force to quash the protests, to arrest and apply the full weight of the law against protesters, are responses that aim to protect the public, but only temporarily delay the next round of race riots and protests.
What is missing in all of this is the political will to build the collective awareness and understanding of the reasons why the USA and other countries, including Canada, are caught up in a spiral of sporadic outbursts of anti-racism rage and sometimes violent protests.
Some of us know that racism persists. Others among us question whether racism exists at all. Most of us cannot agree on a common definition of ‘systemic racism’ and ‘White privilege.’ Conversations on these topics end up being emotionally-charged and mentally draining, causing deep-seated feelings of fear, anger, and resentment to fester.
We will never eradicate racism until we commit to deepening our collective awareness of why racism exists and what we need to do about it.
So where do we go from here?
Let us start by addressing stereotypes.
Stereotypes are perpetuated through images and impressions reinforced in various media.
Courageous dialogues are needed, in fact required, so that we all identify stereotypical images that are offensive to Black people. The aim is to build the understanding why these images are offensive and how they contribute to negative perceptions of Black people by non-Blacks. This understanding could help explain how stereotypes are consciously and unconsciously ingrained and contribute to racially motivated discrimination.
Quaker Oats has announced that it will retire its 130 year-old Aunt Jemima image. Quaker, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, said removing the image and name is part of an effort by the company “to make progress toward racial equality.”
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Quaker Oats said, adding that the move is an effort “toward progress on racial equality.”
The image of Aunt Jemima, who was originally pictured as a minstrel character, was changed over time. In recent years Quaker removed the “mammy” kerchief from the character to blunt growing criticism that the brand perpetuated a racist stereotype that dated to the days of slavery.
Using the image representing a stereotype of my oppressed ancestors for marketing purposes is personally very offensive to me and to others who share my heritage.
I will go as far as saying that stereotypical images such as Aunt Jemima, are at the root of the experiences of Black professional women who have far too often been mistakenly assumed to be members of ancillary staff by non-Black persons, particularly in the corporate world.
The same is true in other institutions. Many talented professional Black women are often asked to take on ‘kitchen duty’ in our churches and community groups.
Not that there is anything wrong with being an ancillary worker or doing kitchen duty, but society benefits from the best use of the talents of its members, regardless of their race.
Hopeful signs of progress
An increasing number of corporate entities are taking a long, hard look at how they may be contributing to racism. This is a very promising sign. If we can emerge from this period of angst and violence with the resolve to raise our collective awareness of the prevalence and persistence of racism, we will be well on our way to building a better world.