Conversations About Racism and the Road to Equality: Understanding racism

As 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS launches "Conversations About Racism and the Road to Equality," Brandi Powell, anchor and reporter, had candid conversations with Minnesotans about their experiences with racism and with experts about what systemic and institutional racism is.

"I would honestly have to say it’s something that I’ve always been aware of, always, you know, since I could say my name," Clarence White said.

Clarence White said he has always been aware of racism. White said his awareness dates back to his childhood in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where racism had been prevalent.

"The experience of race is something that is persistent through time in every aspect of our culture. We are breathing that air, we are drinking that water," White said. "Any child knows where they can go, where they can’t go, what they can say, what they can do. For any black person, those always exist, no matter who old you are."

White recalls repeated instances of racism against him that started as early as Kindergarten. He said his mother was reluctant to send him off to school at that age knowing he would have to deal with racial discrimination.

"She was afraid of what would happen to me, how I would be treated," he said. "I stopped bringing the stories home. You can’t have your parents coming to school every week."

White acknowledged it is an obstacle that many people of color face frequently.

"(Battling racism) is a challenge, and that is a huge amount of work that every person of color, especially people of the African diaspora have to do," White said. "Just to walk through life without letting that trauma destroy us."

From his early experiences in school, White was aware of discrimination.

"There are so many layers, and ways that gets internalized," White said. "There are so many ways that we try to fight that. We are born into the society. We walk through it, learning certain boundaries, but they always exist."

KSTP’s ‘Conversations about racism and the road to equality’

45-year-old Chelsea DeArmond said she couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what racism was as a child.

"It went back and forth and I just remember as a child being completely shocked," DeArmond said.

DeArmond, a white woman, described an experience when the mother of one of her Indigenous classmates came to her second-grade class to address racism with her teacher. DeArmond said she was in the second grade, and her classmate’s mother came to the school to confront her teacher.

"I wouldn’t say that I understood it," she said. "I had not seen grown-ups interact with each other like that. I was just shocked by the whole experience and didn’t have any understanding of what happened."

DeArmond said she grew up in a small Wisconsin town that was predominantly white.

"For the first 20 years of my life I had very little exposure at all," DeArmond says. "Everything I knew about black people I learned from TV, which looking back was really strange to me because it was such a white community, and yet I remember on local news there was a lot about crime and about black people and drugs and gangs. Looking back, I’m like, where in the world was any of that coming from? Because the community was just so homogenous, and so that’s where that was where I learned about black people was the news and TV."

The lack of exposure to people of different backgrounds led to DeArmond’s perception of African Americans to be shaped by what she saw from her local news station. It instilled a fear in her when she encountered African Americans in her life.

"It made me scared, and nervous, and it’s a feeling I still have," DeArmond said. "I catch it, and say this makes no sense, but it’s there and that makes me really sad."

After leaving that Wisconsin town of 3,000 people in the late 1990s, DeArmond moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where she still resides. During her time in the Twin Cities, DeArmond says her perception of African Americans has changed for the better.

The turning point for her was on July 6, 2016; the day Philando Castile was fatally shot during a traffic stop in St. Anthony, Minnesota. Castile lost his life along the same road she drives on every day, which is also a road where she has never been pulled over by law enforcement.

"We were just, like at this point, we understood that racism was real and hurting people and hurting our country, hurting real people. So we had that intellectual understanding, but it was when we walked out onto highway 94 that we felt like we were doing something."

DeArmond says living through the death of Philando Castile and protesting in the wake of his death, helped bring the story of what happened to her classmate in second grade full circle.

"Stepping foot on that freeway and shouting about injustice in solidarity helped me understand that day in my second-grade classroom when Kuneau’s mother interrupted us with cries about her people and what they have suffered," she said.

"I am the whitest human being on the planet," 41-year-old Eddie Wu said. "99.8% DNA tested Northern European. I am South St. Paul born and raised. Live there now."

Wu said he, as a white man, struggled with identifying racism as a young person.

"My experiences with racism growing up, I didn’t realize I was experiencing racism," Wu said. "Or what systems were set up or the things that I was hearing were not just inappropriate, but abhorrent."

Wu, who took on the last name of his wife when he got married to an Asian American woman, is referring to what he describes as racism against Hmong, Jewish, and Black people. He says people around him would use racial slurs or perform anti-Semitic actions, however, nobody questioned them.

"All of those white people were also compliant with what was happening," he said. "It was kind of that attitude of, you know, we’re good people, we treat each other with respect, we believe in what’s good, and we want everything to be better. So, you know, what’s not that big of a deal, it’s just a few jokes."

Wu’s perspective began to shift when he joined the Marines. There, one of his leaders, who was African American, changed his life.

"My experiences with racism were more about systemic racism, that I didn’t understand until I left," he said.

Wu says the respect he had for him made his past crystal clear. Now, with his new lens and understanding, he said he can identify the privilege he possesses.

"I got these things that have benefited me, even if I didn’t know I was benefiting," Wu said.

Rose Brewer, Ph.D., is a professor of African American and African studies at the University of Minnesota.

"Typically we don’t think systemically, in this society, we think about individuals," Brewer said. "In this system, which is heavily racialized, groups of folk, in this instance, African Americans have unequal access."

While spending years as a researcher and author, Dr. Brewer has identified systemic racism as a significant factor in the suppression of African Americans in America.

"We have a number of crises simultaneously," she said.

Brewer says African Americans are disproportionately discriminated against with law enforcement, economically and during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of systemic and institutional racism.

"The results are unequal across one’s racial-ethnic identity lines," Brewer said. "We are talking about an entire society when we are talking about institutions. (Institutions) have procedures. (Institutions) have rules and regulations that can embody within them racialized inequalities."

"I think a lot of white people are hesitant to claim white privilege because they say ‘I work really hard, I’ve struggled to get ahead, you know and I don’t feel privilege,’" Peter Rachleff, Ph.D., said. "The advantage is more degreed."

Rachleff, historian and co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, said systemic racism benefits white people, while suppressing people of color. He said it prevents access for people of color.

Rachleff decided to become a historian to make things better for future generations.

"They don’t have the access to generations of success, generations of formal schooling, generations of property ownership," Rachleff said. "So they’re starting out with a material disadvantage."

Rachleff said internal dialogue is the genesis of how racial stereotypes are created, circulated, and consumed. He calls it "the three C’s."

"That’s what replicates the system of white advantage and inequality that we are, that we’re seeing the consequence of."

‘Conversations about Racism and the Road to Equality:’ Dr. Peter Rachleff interview

"We are talking about something that is deep, that’s pervasive, that’s not an everyday form of prejudice," Keith Mayes, Ph.D., said.

Mayes is an associate professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. He has spent his career researching and teaching topics such as the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, racial equity and the history of African Americans.

He said in order to understand the generational oppression of African Americans in America, you have to first be aware of the racial disparities.

"We have a civil rights movement that supposedly ended [racism]," Mayes said. "But that’s not the case because now all you have to do is look at the disparities in American life. Look at income levels, look at housing, where people live, look at educational attainment, look at who’s in corporate America."

During years of research, Mayes said the data reflects these disparities amongst people of color.

"The research completely bears it out," he said. "All of these things speak to a certain kind of system over time, institutional, in different places. Deeply entrenched practices, racial practices that started all the way during slavery and continue to this very day."

Mayes said in order to get a grasp of racism in its totality, you have to understand the systemic and institutional impact it has on society. He says at that point, you can realize that racism is deeper than racial slurs.

"If you call me the N-word and you’re white, of course it has a negative effect," Mayes said. "But if you keep me from a job, if you keep me in a certain neighborhood, that’s completely different. One is prejudice, that’s born out of a certain kind of discrimination."

Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch is no stranger to the construct of racism, and the significance it has on the historical framework of the United States.

"If anybody knew a little bit of history you’d understand that the evolution of American democracy embedded in it, was always the notion of racism and systematic racism," Bunch said. "Issues of race have been at the heart of the debate about what America is, what it should be since its inception."

Bunch is the current Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which is one of the world’s largest and most prominent museum, education, and research complex. Bunch, an African American, said racism is a mechanism that is not only systemic but appears in institutions as well. He said racism made way for government and corporate structures to make decisions in society.

"In essence, part of what institutional racism is, is that as the government evolved, as the community evolved," Bunch said. "There were decisions that were made based on race that then became institutionalized in our systems."

Bunch said America has experienced intense moments of social unrest throughout history, causing hesitation in his hope for substantial change. He said this while also acknowledging this is a moment where we can take the time to learn and understand the generational trauma of African Americans while also changing society.

"I am hopeful, but not always optimistic," Bunch says. "What I find so powerful about African American history, is that African Americans believed in a country that didn’t believe in them. And yet they dreamed of freedom when there should have been no reason to believe that slavery would ever end. They believed that there would be civil rights. And yet the world was so driven by segregation. Yet why did they believe."

‘Conversations about Racism and the Road to Equality:’ Lonnie Bunch interview

"I have seen more kind of aggressive racism in my time here," Mohammed Mahdi Ahmed said.

Someone who has experienced racism is Mohammed Mahdi Ahmed, who is of African descent. Ahmed says he has been followed in stores, and has encountered multiple instances of people shouting racial slurs and epithets at him. He says he has been called a terrorist and told to leave America in public on multiple occasions.

"In my mind, I feel like we are all human beings, we are all equal," Ahmed said. "As a person of color, I shouldn’t be discriminated against because I look different. It hurts when people tell you that you don’t belong here."

Ahmed is originally from Somalia, a nation in Western Africa that is bordered by Ethiopia. He made America his home in April of 2014, when he moved to Syracuse, New York. In May of 2015, he relocated to Minneapolis, where he has lived since.

"My experience, it’s not different from the experiences of many Black men and women, young and old. It’s no separate from the general experiences of every single person of color in this country."

Despite the negative experiences Ahmed has faced, he is still hopeful change can come. He said equality amongst people of every background is essential to breaking down racism and everyone has to play their part.

"We should all stand up as a human race, not as a white and Black, we are all [the] same, we are all human beings," he said. "If you see injustices happening to your neighborhood, or people that you know, or friends, you should speak up for them. If you are silent that means you are part of the problem."

Laura Mayo, a white woman who now lives in St. Paul, said she started to notice racial injustices very clearly in college.

"That’s when I started getting really mad," Mayo said. "That’s when, now it’s not just stories, I’m watching it, and I’m watching the people I love have these experiences, and they’re having this experience all of the time."

Mayo said her skin color provides protection while entering spaces in her life.

"There’s just so much I don’t have to deal with because of my skin color," she said. "I don’t go into interviews and worry if this color is going to be a deterrent. Or, to go get a loan, it actually probably helps me out. As I’m moving through those spaces, knowing that I am getting this, but my other friends aren’t, that should make any white person mad. We need to be peeved about this. We need to educate ourselves on this."

After gaining the awareness to point out racism, and learning how it plays a role in society, Mayo can now reflect on the first time she noticed racism in her life. She says it first came up when Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign for the President of the United States gained traction in 1988.

"I remember hearing adults say, ‘I can’t imagine a black man being president,’" she said. "I remember hearing that, and going ‘What…why?’"

Mayo is aware of the role she plays in society as a mother, artist and educator, and is now pushing herself and others, specifically white people, to fight against racism and discrimination in America.

"It’s just the beginning," she said. "It’s many, many layers, and it’s going to be hard work. It’s whiteness that needs to change, that’s where that has to happen."

‘Conversations about Racism and the Road to Equality:’ Laura Mayo interview