On the Other Side of Racism Awareness: Interviews

The tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump has led to increased examination over race, power, and privilege in the United States. During that time, there have been many shock points that have highlighted the disparity in the lived experiences of black people and other historically marginalized groups in a deep critique of the institutions that belie this country’s social contract; the notion of “liberty and justice for all” as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance. From 2008 to 2014 I was the director of the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB) chapter at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. SAAB is a national organization dedicated to mentoring African American and Latino males at the high school and college levels toward successful matriculation. Additionally, SAAB advisers host several programs designed to groom mentees and establish habits that facilitate their success post-graduation. 

This post originally appeared in our sister site, MethodSpace, where the author, Brendon Fox, contributed to a 2019 series on Research for Social Good. In that post, he discussed research conducted with Jeff Bourgeois when both were teaching at Fort Hays State University at SIAS International University in China. Now in the US due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, he decided to revisited themes from his doctoral research and conducted some follow-up interviews.

I based the research and writing of my doctoral dissertation in 2014/2015 on that experience1. It was an ethnographic study of our SAAB chapter, and the lived experiences of several advisers/mentors. For this article, I reconnected with three chapter brothers, Regis, Bryant, and Brendt. I wondered how their experiences with race before, during, and after our time together matched the public discourse, the heightened scrutiny of race relations, institutional dynamics in race, and the socio-political landscape, that now fractures relationships between family and friend.

SAAB members group photo
Founding members of SAAB Southwestern College in 2009

Conversations about Race: Pre-College

How did you see race if at all?

Regis – Kansas

My conversations came from my family relative to historical perspectives of race and the Civil Rights Movement. I remembered that one time when we were in Chicago, an elderly lady clutching her purse as we were walking toward her on the street. For me, I think I experienced direct racism [cultural stereotypes] from Black people in my community who judged me for going to a private school and playing tennis. I received indirect racism from people at school by things like not being invited to parties. I also noticed that students self-segregated into cliques according to race and status. I had to transverse two different worlds and I think I did that successfully.

Bryant – Oklahoma

I never really had the conversation where they said, ‘Hey, let me sit down and talk to you.’ I was in the back seat and my mom and dad got pulled over and after the interaction, they said, ‘If you ever get pulled over you need to do this, this, and this.’ I don’t think they ever pushed the narrative to do this so I won’t get hurt or anything like that, but it was kind of implied. But I had slightly older cousins that would interact with the law who would have conversations with kids my age, so that’s how we got an awareness of it. I went to a 98.9 percent minority school and we would have to play all of the country schools, so we got introduced to it again, and our coaches would have that impromptu conversation. We were told that we were going to get dressed at our school because we don’t want to use their facilities and not to bring anything extra because if we lost it, no one was going to help us find it. We understood that before the games even started we were already behind.

Bryant recalled an incident when an opponent’s stadium was graffitied with our mascot’s name misspelled only to find out later that it was done by some fathers of the opposing team: 

The only way we found that out was because the coach of that team became my principal when I went back to work at my high school. He said that he wished he could have apologized to us about that but we were all gone after graduation. 

Brendt – Texas

Brendt did not have conversations around race when his family lived in a suburb of Dallas, but that changed when he moved to a small town. He was told, “You can’t date that girl.” So instead, he focused on sports. He did not have “the talk” about how to behave around law enforcement. He noticed subtle, indirect things, like reactions when entering an elevator or women clutching their purses tighter or crossing the street to avoid him. Those reactions followed him pre-college, during college, and post-college. He was never called the “n-word.” 

Conversations about Race: College

What about your college experiences with racism? 

Regis – Kansas 

College (Newman University, a private school) was more inclusive than high school, however, there was a white girl from a small Kansas town I was seeing. As we got more involved, she said “I don’t know if we should go any further because I’m not sure how my family would react to a black guy.” As far as the institution and the students, I did not have a problem.

Bryant – Oklahoma

I didn’t directly experience anything until Obama got voted in. Once he got voted in, our football team almost had a full out race riot. It started as perceived favoritism toward a white running back in place of a Black running back. The team was deeply divided. Just like in Remember the Titans, the coach made everyone sit next to a player that didn’t look like them in a room that was divided in half racially for a team meeting. 

For parties, the white guys were making people draw the swastika sign on their hands, which was an indication that you had paid for the party and the keg. When we arrived from a track meet, we noticed all of the basketball players were outside [of the party]. We asked them why they were not in the party and they told us that they couldn’t get in and that they had noticed everyone’s hands so they decided to leave because they were going to get into a fight. So we all changed our clothes to go back to the party to confront them, but the police were driving around so we never got a chance to.

I never really had any animosity toward them in high school. We were just told what to expect. Then when we got to college we realized that this is what they were talking about since we were actually being confronted. There was another time, we went to Newkirk, Oklahoma for a party after we thought things had been squashed. When we got there some guys stepped out that we didn’t know and told us that it was a private party. We started to get a little rowdy until they opened the door to the barn where the party was and some guys inside pulled out some shotguns so we decided to leave. That was when a lot of the Dallas and Houston kids decided to leave at the end of the semester. 

Brendt – Texas

Of course, you had those teammates that were like that but when they were around me, there was nothing like that [racist behavior]. I guess they knew who to say it to and who not to say it to because I never got any of that.

How did Student African American Brotherhood connect you to racism identification?

Regis – Kansas

 I felt that I came from a different place than the other guys in SAAB because they came from schools in Oklahoma and Texas and they were in class together at Southwestern. I did and still do enjoy the connection to this day.

Bryant – Oklahoma

Bryant says that his awareness of racial inequality wasn’t heightened until he started working. “Once I started working I started noticing things and once I got into education I really started to notice disparities and things like that.” He is connected to a man who runs a mentoring organization in the Oklahoma City area, called Making of Men, who has helped him develop his awareness. He would ask Bryant, ‘How did that make you feel?’ or ‘What did you think about that?’ “He gave me the opportunity to voice it and then once you start to voice it, you start thinking about it and think to yourself, ‘Oh, I guess that was kind of messed up.’”

Brendt – Texas

SAAB served a lot of purposes for me. It helped me grow up. It helped mold my mind. It helped me establish a better relationship with the SAAB brothers. It helped me grow up overall. 

Conversations about Race: Post-College

What are your thoughts about racial situated-ness post-college in the Trump Era?

Regis – Kansas

I am more vocal about it. I’m not necessarily afraid to voice my opinion on what I feel is racist, but that is the way things are nationally anyway. I see people not knowing how to handle interactions [between people of another race] that leads to awkwardness. What I have found in being more vocal is that the people who are willing to listen really try to get it. 

In the postings on social media, Regis has tried to be more restrained as they relate to social justice issues because of pushback and alienation of some of the people who have linked with him. He says that when he does post things about the current administration, the killings by police, his trip to Minneapolis to the George Floyd memorial, he preemptively states that he doesn’t care if anyone has a problem with it.

Before, I wouldn’t have been so definitive, but I’ve gotten to the point that I feel that if you don’t get it now, you’re just not trying to get it. I just don’t have the energy to communicate with you about it. For me, it’s all about bringing about awareness so that awareness will bring about equality.

Regis finds a double standard in how people perceive the killings of black people by police, especially in the Breonna Taylor case.

You still see comments, ‘Well if the boyfriend hadn’t shot first.’ Man shut up! Because you know if races were switched and a white guy would have shot first, ‘Oh he’s just defending his home.’ But I don’t see speaking out as an obligation; it’s a privilege because I can speak about things that others can’t.

Regis recalled a time when he went out with a white girl and at the end of the night, she said to him, “The looks that we got tonight!” He was unaware. He says that he thinks because of his background being in mostly white spaces, he has become oblivious to the staring.

Where Do You See Racism?

Regis – Kansas 

All of [Trump’s] supporters, I don’t care what they say, have decided that racism is not a deal-breaker. It’s fairly obvious to me that we have a man in the White House who doesn’t care about us or the way we feel. His supporters try to justify it by saying that he’s here to run a country, not care about our feelings. But when the shoe was on the other foot, they raised the same concerns about Obama. I have learned that you can’t debate with these people. That’s the brilliance of Trump, he coined the phrase “fake news” so if you are a follower of his, that’s all you have to say.

Regis can see things that happened to him in the past as a racist incident that he previously didn’t. One aspect of racism is that it can be so subtle and insidious that the awareness of it may not happen in real-time. Usually, awareness occurs much later and upon reflection. But by then, the damage is done. When conversations happen between generations, the younger generation lacks awareness that has been tempered by the experiences of older generations. “You have to go through enough of it to see it more clearly.” 

Bryant – Oklahoma

Bryant cites an incident when there were racial slurs written on the volleyball court at Southwestern College recently. He and other alumni reached out to the president of the college to ask for a unified response against racist acts. An investigation ensued and assurances for student safety were given by the administration. In the following school year, he and others were asked to address the juniors followed by comments from the president. This was a show of unity for the black alumni and the current administration and solidified the organization. 

Bryant has had to delete some of his old football teammates from his social media. He reflects that he does not agree that they necessarily came from a racist background, rather they are acting out of a level of racist comfort and assume a defensive posture.

When someone brings up something that’s wrong, you automatically take offense to it. ‘Well, I’m not racist.’ But if you look at the things you are saying and the things you are doing, you would fall into that category. It’s kind of hard for them to see that because everyone around them acts like that and they were never really exposed to anyone else.

Bryant is a seventh-grade science teacher and a high school athletic coach who says that he sees a lot of racism in the public school system exacerbated by politics. He thinks that the Trump era has given people of color more of a platform to voice their opposition to racism and be taken seriously. 

Previously, they would say ‘Nah, that didn’t happen.’ but the way he’s been acting and the things that have been going on, people are starting to recognize things that have always been going on but people are just now starting to believe us. People getting beat up by the cops didn’t just start happening in the last two years.

Brendt – Texas

Brendt had a strong reaction to the question of racial encounters after college.

Very much so! People’s mannerisms change. When I see the Trump flag, the symbolism behind that has to do with racism to me and that old-time confederate mindset. We live in a neighborhood where that’s all you see is Trump 2020 signs. A month ago, I had the Biden-Harris sign in front of my house. And then a Black Lives Matter sign in front of my house. Around 11:43 at night, a white guy in his mid-30s, early 40s came into my yard and stole both of my signs, and ran away. We have it on video. I have a cool white neighbor who is plugged-in. He has all of the connections. He sent it to the police station and they were able to figure out who it was. They figured out his car that he had parked three houses down. After stealing my signs, he ran back to his car.

Another time we were in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, to spend time at a cabin with some friends when a hiked-up truck with a whole bunch of white boys drove by us and gave us the finger. So at this time is when I have really seen racism. It’s the most I’ve ever seen in my life.

Brendt has vivid accounts of racial perceptions on his job as a software developer. He describes it as a military company with a “good ol’ boy mentality.”

Everyone was looking at me like I didn’t deserve to be there so everything that I was doing, I had to do it better than. People were complaining that I wasn’t doing things right, but my boss went to bat for me left and right. Whenever they would challenge my work and try to duplicate it, they could never come up with my results. So they were told to go back to work. This continued for about a year. I loved what I was doing but I didn’t like the environment. People were looking at me strangely and giving me the cold shoulder. After four years, I do my job and I make sure I rub it in with the people that have the attitude about me being there. This is the way I feed my family and everyone that needs to be on my side, is on my side. The ones that have the old mentality are the ones who don’t have the power [in the organization]. I’m one of the youngest people in the organization and out of 200 or 230 people, there are only seven Blacks. The people who are against me are in supervision but not in senior positions. 

Brendt’s backing comes from the executive level. 

When they raised concerns about me it had to go to my manager and then the upper-level manager who was the senior vice president. The senior vice president was my guy, he’s gone now but every time, he was like ‘Prove it.’ And it could never be proven so he was like, ‘Brendt, go back to work.’

Discussion and Positionality

James Baldwin said:

It comes as a great shock to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.

The implicit and sometimes explicit and systemic nature of racism in the U.S. is overwhelming and absolute. The U.S. brand of racism inflicts ongoing traumatic stress on the intended target that can emanate from anywhere at any time. It is unique in that it transcends regular cruelty because it depersonalizes, is selective yet random, inflicts trauma at the physical, mental, and emotional levels of a person’s psyche. Negotiating and confronting it requires vigilance and an ever-evolving sense of self-positional egalitarianism. These are the evidence of the “racial contract” which is characterized by C. Wright Mills2 as a set of formal or informal agreements which inform the limits of whites or full persons, to categorize the remaining subset of humans as “nonwhite” and of a different and inferior moral status “subpersons,” so that they have a subordinate civil standing in the white or white-ruled governmental structures. The general purpose of the contract is always the deferential privileging of the whites in comparison to the nonwhites, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the contract, though some are not signatories to it. Nonwhites are not a consenting party, rather it is a contract categorized as white over nonwhites who are the objects rather than the subjects of the agreement (pp. 11-12).

These interviews and other conversations I have had with black men in my family and my age group (the 60s) closely resemble the behavioral patterns of The Change Curve and Modified Kübler-Ross Model as based on the original 1972 Kübler-Ross Model3 of the Five Stages of Grief:

  • Shock – Initial paralysis. Disbelief at what is happening or has happened.
  • Denial – Trying or wanting to avoid reality. Being comfortable with what was.
  • Anger – Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion
  • Depression – Final realization of the inevitable
  • Testing – Seeking realistic solutions
  • Acceptance – Finding a way forward. Impatience for the change to be complete.

The research revealed that none of the participants received “the talk” that we hear so much of in public discourse, which consists of concerned black parents advising their black sons on how they should behave in the event of contact with law enforcement and are viewed to be life-saving strategies. The very small sample may not be representative of many Black households. Geography may also be a factor. My violent racist encounters occurred in New York, Oregon, Maryland, and the Philippines; not in the Midwest. Additionally, my family members did not experience overt racism growing up in northern Indiana and Kansas City. It is almost universally the experience of all of those who participated, that aside from sporadic and infrequent observations of white fear or discomfort and the cautions of elders, racism and bias were experienced and first recognized post-college and in organizational settings and resulted in the denial of opportunities, assumptions of credibility, and overt gestures of inclusion and belonging. Those encounters then provided a link to the recognition of the admonitions of previous generations of family, friends, and advisors. In the recently emboldened racialized sociopolitical environment, it is broadly felt that the Trump flag has risen in recognition as a symbol of racism and oppression on par with the Swastika and Confederate flags. Those who fly them from their vehicles are perceived to be illiberal xenophobes with a penchant for racist behavior.

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Brendon Fox

Brendon Fox is an instructor of Leadership Studies within the International Partnership program that Fort Hays State University in Kansas has in China. Prior to teaching at Fort Hays, he administered two programs at Southwestern College: director of the Student Success Center and director of the Student African American Brotherhood Initiative, which is a mentoring organization. Fox's research is in leadership development, critical theory/pedagogy, and social justice and power structures at varying levels of human interaction.

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