Linda Whitehead grew up in Norfolk, Virginia in the 1960s when, during the rare times a black person went to a white hospital, there was a literal dividing line of segregation.
Helena Stephens recalled a special act of political courage when her white grandfather drove her home in the middle of a Chicago rally during her youth. On one side of the car was a group of black and African-Americans and on the other side was white protesters. She recalled each peering into the car staring at her, a young black girl.
“He never stopped protecting me the whole way home,” she said, adding that he never once abandoned her and her brothers even after their garage was bombed in a racial act.
And James Whitfield won’t forget the time when he was a child, taking a walk with his mother in Champagne, Illinois when he saw the police. In his naivete, he decided to run around to see if the police would follow.
“Mother knelt down and said, ‘You are a young black male. They will kill you.’”
Today, Whitfield practices Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to love one’s neighbor and one’s enemy and has a good relationship with Bellevue’s police Chief Steve Mylett – a man he was taught to be his enemy.
Whitehead, who is part of the Diversity Advisory Network and Bellevue Network on Aging; Stephens, the recreation program manager for the city of Bellevue’s Parks and Recreation Department; and Whitfield, the CEO of Leadership Eastside, were among five panelists at the city of Bellevue’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. event held on Jan. 10 at City Hall.
Shomari Jones, the Bellevue School District’s director of equity and Patrice Conner, a businesswoman and member of the Bellevue Alumni Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, also joined the panel discussion.
Despite Bellevue’s “majority minority” demographics, meaning there are more people of color than white people, only 2.7 percent of residents are African-American or black, according to 2016 estimates from the American Community Survey, which is part of the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program.
Because of these demographics, panelists were asked what they wanted people in Bellevue to know about what it’s like to be black or African-American on the Eastside.
Jones said the challenge is the constant need to prove oneself. And, when he’s not proving, he’s defending.
He recalled a specific example of some students in the Bellevue School District who wanted to put up some posters with their positions on social justice around their school. But, after the material was posted, post-it notes started popping up with messages around how God didn’t put transgendered people on this earth or pointing out that there wasn’t a program for white kids at the school.
Jones said he thinks about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was persistent in his message and goals, but also acknowledged the burden he carried and that it’s important to stay centered.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for growth in this community,” he said.
Conner said she’s met people in Bellevue who have never interacted with a black or African-American person and are surprised by her.
“I don’t fit the stereotype of black women you see on ‘Cops’ or ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta,’” she said, noting she’s educated. “… Don’t stereotype me. I’m not that person.”
Stephens questioned if America has changed since Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Although she recognized opportunities for black and African-American people have expanded and there’s more representation on TV, she said the United States still has a basic problem with racism and how Americans deal with race on an individual basis.
“I think we’re misled if we think it has changed,” she said.
But in order to begin to effect real change, Stephens, Jones and Whitfield encourage those who claim to not be racist to speak up and take action.
“Now is the time to interrupt and disrupt,” Jones said. “… Forgo discomfort, our lives depend on it.”
“Children depend on us so when we’re silent, they’re impacted,” he added.
Whitfield suggested non-racist people should reach over to those who may be and invite them to dinner.