Sunday, October 18, 2015
By James Lomuscio
The term that Susan Toliver used, “racial micro-aggression,” at first seemed like academic gobbledygook to the approximate 50 persons who had gathered today at the “Black Life in Fairfield County” talk held at the Westport Library.
“They’re brief and commonplace slights,” said Toliver, chair of the sociology department and co-coordinator of women’s studies at Iona College.
Toliver had been invited as keynote speaker for the second of a series of conversations about race cosponsored by TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism) Westport with the Westport Library and the Weston-Westport Interfaith Clergy.
Toliver then went on to give examples that drive the academic term home, making it real and painful.
For example, there was the black suburban woman who accidentally tripped her home’s security alarm, only to have the police upon their arrival ask her for identification.
“She was in her bathrobe, and her children were upstairs sleeping,” Toliver said.
Then there was the suburban black woman, who, after being told by the butcher the store was out of prime rib, opted to buy pork chops.
“He told her, ‘They’re very different. You better check with the lady you’re shopping for,’” Toliver said.
Toliver then shared a personal story about her son. He had high academic grades in middle school, she said, but was told he would have to take a summer preparedness program before starting freshman year at a private Fairfield County high school.
The same school did not require the son of Toliver’s white friend to take the remedial program.
“He had to defend his academic worth,” she said, adding that the presumption was a double-edged sword because she was grateful the school wanted to help other African-American students get ahead.
“These are the kinds of forms racism takes today,” she said.
Toliver then took part in a panel discussion moderated by the Rev. Allison Buttrick Patton of the Saugatuck Congregational Church. Joining her were Judith Hamer, an educator and former Westporter who now lives in Redding, and Harold Bailey, TEAM Westport chairman.
Hamer and Bailey also shared the heartfelt challenges and advantages of being black in Westport and the “micro-aggressions” their children faced growing up. According to Bailey, Westport is 1 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian.
Bailey, who said he attended segregated schools in Tennessee, said that his children felt like the teachers assumed “they were experts on black people in class” each time a black issue came up.
“I always told them that they were different, but different in a way they should be proud,” Bailey said.
Hamer said that her three daughters, all with distinct personalities, dealt differently with the issue of race.
She described her oldest one as an extrovert who surrounded herself with many friends, friends who would immediately come to her defense if there were any perceived racism.
The second daughter excelled as an athlete, but the third felt like an outsider, she said.
“My third one does not come back,” Hamer said. “She said she has no use for the town.”
Dennis Wong, a second-generation Chinese American, asked panel members to describe “the advantages of being black in Fairfield County.”
Bailey, for one, said a major advantage of living in Westport is the quality of the schools. Toliver cited “a critical mass of upper middle class African-American families to talk to.”
“The advantage for me here is the arts,” said Mildred Bunche, a town resident for 42 years.
She agreed that she experienced some forms of racism over the years, including the subtle, sometimes un-intentioned kind that Toliver described.
“I just let things roll off,” she said. “Feeling really comfortable as a person is the answer.”
Today’s talk was the second TEAM Westport conversation on race. The first one was held in May in response to “White Lives Matter” flyers that had been left in some driveways. (See WestportNow May 17, 2015)
Posted 10/18/15 at 08:45 PM Permalink