Not Blind to Color in the Federation: A Panel on the Experience of Black and Blind in America

MARK RICCOBONO: Okay. Great. So, we're going to go ahead and move to our panel. If we can give them their time, we have almost everybody here, I think. So this is a panel that I'm very excited about, and I'm glad that they have agreed to participate with us. We've been having the discussion about what we can do within our organization to combat racism and to make sure that we create an environment where it's really, we're able to discuss the intersectionalities of various characteristics that we have as blind people. One of the myths I referred to in the presidential report is that because you're blind, you don't see skin color, and therefore don't carry the same bias as everybody else. We know -- we know the truth is that that's not true. And that's just another ableist misconception about our capacity and our participation in society. So we put together this panel to have the conversation. It's not blind to color in the federation: A panel on the experience of Black and blind in America. We hope that this is just one piece of an ongoing conversation we're having within our organization. Here to moderate the panel and to guide the discussion is a board member of the National Federation of the Blind. She has a long, distinguished history in our organization, including winning our highest award. You heard her on a fit break earlier. From California, here is Ever Lee Hairston!

(A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke playing).

EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Oh, yes it will. A change is gonna come. Good afternoon, everyone, and good evening to some of you. This is a sad day for me in some respects because of the death of Congressman Lewis. I marched with him 57 years ago. We were marching then for the things that he talked about. And I remember that John Lewis stood on the front of the line many times, and he was beaten, and he had his skull cracked, walking in the protest lines. Not blind to color in the Federation: Black and blind experiences in America and in the Federation of the Blind.

Our perspective on diversity: We may have different religions. We may have different languages. We may have different colored skin. But we all belong to one human race. It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. We believe getting to know others is a true way to connect. Unfortunately, some people are not willing to change their beliefs or their attitudes about someone not like themselves.

One of my most profound experiences in the Federation that I think is necessary to share. Several years ago, I was asked to be the national representative at one of our state conventions. As a national representative, normally I would fly from California to that state on a Thursday evening. And that's what I did on this particular time. When I arrived at the hotel, checked into my room, I received a text message from the state president asking me to meet them in the lobby. I was so excited, one, for being in a state that I had never visited, and anxious to meet in person the president. So I left my hotel room, went to the elevator bank, stood, and was waiting for the elevator. Then I heard three ladies walk up. I heard the cane. And I was excited! I said, wow, they must be Federationists! So I said "good evening, ladies". And no response. "Good evening, ladies!" No response. I felt, well, they're chatting. I don't think they're deaf. Then the elevator stopped on our floor... and then I got on the elevator... and still trying to be polite and cordial, I said, "ladies, are you coming on?” And one lady replied "I don't know who you are, but I'm not getting on that elevator with you." And she called me the N word. Shocked, and in disbelief, I knew at that moment that I was there on a mission. I had a purpose to fulfill. I was there to inform, to inspire, to motivate and to serve. And I could not stoop to her level. But the one thing that helped me was thinking of a quote and the author is unknown, and it goes like this: Watch your thoughts, because they become your words. Watch your words, for they become your actions. Watch your action, for it becomes your habit. Watch your habits, for they become your character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

That gave me the courage that I needed to move on and not be distracted by the negativity that I had just endured.

So, I would like to have the members of this panel today share some of their Black and blind experiences. And first on the panel today we have Ron Brown. Ron, most of you know, he serves as second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. He is married to Jean Brown. They have been married for 33 years. He is also president of our Indiana affiliate. And he has been a member of the Federation for 40 years. We have leaders on this panel.

Our second panelist is going to be Denice Brown. Denice hails from Pennsylvania, and serves on the board of NFB of Pennsylvania. She is a retired teacher. She taught elementary school in the city of Philadelphia. Denice is also the president of the greater Philadelphia chapter, where she has been the president of that chapter for 17 years.

Next we have Bobbi Pompey. Bobbi comes from my home state, which is the tarheels of North Carolina. Bobbi is an adjunct professor at San Fran State University. She serves as chair of scholarships in California, where I live now, and she serves at the San Francisco Lighthouse. Next we have Tarik Williams. Tarik is from Arizona, but he hails from Pennsylvania. Tarik serves on the board of directors of the Arizona affiliate. He works for the rehabilitation office there.

So we're going to first hear from our panelists in that order. Ron, take it away.

RON BROWN: Thank you. Greetings to my Federation family. I want to take a few minutes and talk to you all about growing up as an African-American young man in my community. A lot of you all know about "the talk", and the talk in the African-American community is this: I was just learning to drive, and my father and mom told me, Ron, we want to have a talk with you about driving.

And about how you live your life. And it kind of took me by surprise. And I said, okay...

So I started to have this conversation with my father, and he said "you're old enough now to drive, and I want you to understand a couple of things. One thing is this: When you're driving, you may get pulled over by the police. And if you do, I want you to, number one, keep your hands on top of the wheel, the steering wheel. I also want you, if they ask for your license, you say okay, and you let them know that you are reaching for your license.

I thought this was kind of a peculiar conversation at the time. I said, why would they pull me over, dad? I'm just driving. I didn't do anything wrong! And my father told me that you need to understand that you need to make sure your hands are where they can see them and let them know that you're reaching for your license. Because this talk will help keep you safe. It will keep you cure. And it will get you home alive.

I filed this information away and I thought about it that day. Wow, I can just get pulled over just because I'm Black? As time progressed, I lost my vision. And I started to teach orientation and mobility for the blind. I went and got a master's degree out of Louisiana Tech University, and I was teaching cane travel in a little small town in an Indiana community. As I was teaching this young white girl, we were walking, it was said to me "hey, you, come here. Show me your license". Now, I never thought I would have to bring back up the talk, because I filed it away in my mind, but it all came rushing back to me. And this police officer said to me "I want to see your license", and I said to him "so, officer, what did I do wrong"? And he said to me that we got a report that a Black man was following a white girl. Now I said to the officer, so what is my crime? I'm teaching her how to get and navigate from her home to the bus stop. I said, what is my crime? And this officer didn't answer. So I answered for him. So my crime is walking while Black? And he still didn't answer. So I chalked it up as ignorance and let it go.

About two weeks later, I got in the same community surrounded by four police cars this time! And the officers, again, said to me "let us see your license, let us see your ID". And I said, again, teaching the same little white girl in the same community, "officers, what did I do wrong"? And they didn't answer. Then they also said, one of them said "we got a complaint that a Black man was following a white girl". And I said again, so my crime is walking while Black?

And they didn't answer.

You see, the talk I want to have with my Federation family today is that people say we don't see color, though! But you know, guys? I want you to see my color. I want you to know that I'm an African-American male. I want you to know that I'm blind, but just like my blindness, you should not let my blackness define who I am as a person. I am a Black male who happens to be blind. These officers didn't see my cane, nor did they see anything else. They didn't even see her cane! They just saw an African-American male following a white girl. So I say to you all, and I'll wrap it up, that I want you to see that I am a Black, African-American male, but my blackness does not define me, nor does my blindness. I want you to celebrate our differences, celebrate our diversity. Thank you

EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Denice, you're up.

DENICE BROWN: Good evening, my Federation family. Before losing my vision as a Black woman I saw racism in a couple of ways. Sometimes it would hit you right in the face. For example, when going to a very high-end fashion store in Philadelphia, and I'm in there looking through the clothing because I'm preparing to go to a special event on an upcoming weekend. So I'm just looking, and I hear a salesperson walking toward me. In my mind I'm thinking she's getting ready to say "can I help you"? But when she walked up to me, she said "we don't do layaway here". Took me aback for a moment. And I don't have the length of time to give you the answer that I gave to that salesperson.

I've also experienced racism sort of territorially, I'll call it. For a short period of time, I lived in a suburb of Philadelphia, and in that particular suburb where I was living, it happened to be about 99% white. I was starting to look for a teaching position at that time. I had one. But I was looking for something better. So I had sent out applications all around the state. And I got a phone call from a particular school district saying that they saw my resume, they knew I had just graduated from college six months earlier, and that they wanted me to come in, because they thought I had everything that they needed. There was a second grade opening, and I would fit well in that position. They wanted to know how soon could I get down to the office to have an interview? So I made my appointment, and I spoke to the same person that spoke to on the phone. We had a great conversation. Then I had to go to the superintendent, who was doing the hiring. Well, when I walked in the door of the superintendent, I barely got to sit down and he told me that I would not be able to get that job because I had just gotten out of school. Well, someone told me the same thing, they said you knew that I had just gotten out of school and that I would be good for the job. He said, well, there was a mistake. Well, I understood what that meant. My address, when he saw it, and probably my name, which isn't very ethnic, they probably thought I was a white individual. So obviously I did not get that job.

When I came to the Federation, I was 42 years old. I was a seasoned adult, but not seasoned in the Federation. I quickly became president of my chapter, and of course, not knowing the full philosophy of the Federation and knowing that I have to learn things, I started seeking out individuals who have been in leadership so that I could learn. I had 20 years of education under my belt as a teacher, and I wanted to do other things. I wanted to be involved with other committees. My education background, I thought it made me able to -- I'd be a good candidate for one of the committees. Scholarship committees in Pennsylvania. But I was not able to get on that committee, and I thought, well, okay, as time goes on, maybe I'll have a chance. Again, I built my chapter, membership kept going up. I continued to attend state and national conventions, Washington seminar, volunteering at possibility fairs, reading speeches from banquets. USLAM came up. I decided that I should be a volunteer. It made sense to me. No one told me to become a volunteer. I knew this was something I should do so I could learn and get more involved

Somewhere along the line in meeting people around the NFB, I heard about something called a leadership seminar, which takes place at our national headquarters. I inquired about possibly being able to go to one of these seminars. But at that time, I was told that I wasn't really possessing the leadership qualities in order to go to one of these seminars. But I kept on doing, and I kept on participating and getting involved in whatever I could with the NFB. And in 2009 I got a phone call shortly after our convention in Detroit, and it was inviting me to the leadership seminar for that year. I was ecstatic. I knew that somebody felt my worth, somebody knew I had potential, somebody knew that I had value. So I want to thank that person, or thank those people. Because the things that I learned at the leadership seminar I will never lose. They are highly cherished.

What I want to say to some of my Federation family -- I have listened to some of you who feel that you are stuck in certain positions that you haven't had the chance to get the responsibility that you would like to have. I would like to say to you, just keep looking forward. Keep looking forward. Think of the NFB as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Because you will get your chance as long as you keep the NFB as the key.

I cannot tell you the great things that I see in this organization. The diversity and inclusion committee is doing a great job. Again, I want to say that this organization is not only changing what it means to be blind, but is changing what it means to be Black and blind. Thank you

EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Thank you, Denice. Let's hear from Bobbi Pompey.

BOBBI POMPEY: Hello, everybody. I'd like to start by saying thank you. Ever Lee, Ron, Denice, and Tarik, for agreeing to be on this panel and share these stories that are painful and vulnerable. I'd like to thank my Federation family and people who are tuning in from anywhere and everywhere during this virtual convention

Let's talk about sound. We use sound constantly, especially as blind people. From the sounds of the voices of our screen readers, to the different taps of our cane tips. And even to the gavel that we've come to know and symbolize as the beginning of these general sessions. I guess we can now add in the spinning of the membership coin.

All of these sounds are based on perception. So, for example, we're all familiar with the phrase, "if it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck". But what if it's not?

Keep that in mind. Specifically today, I'd like to talk about one specific sound, and that sound is my voice. Yes, this voice that you are hearing right now. So picture this: Bobbi, the young and beautiful (small giggle), less than two years into the Federation and running for a presidential office. I'm at this convention, bright eyed, eager, and I am putting in the work, and I'm also working the room! Or as boring people say, "networking". As part of this networking, I was introduced to one particular NFB leader, but it wasn't the first time I'd been introduced to an NFB leader. I'd like to go back a little further to my first Washington seminar. I was invited to attend a dinner where we'd be meeting another Federation leader at this dinner. On the way to the dinner, the people I was going with stopped in the hallway and pulled me over to the side, and they go "Bobbi, I mean, it doesn't matter, and we don't know how to ask you this, but... are you Black"? I mean, we know you go to a historically Black college, but... we're just not sure, because of how you talk.

Going back to my election and my presidential bid.

Over the convention, I'm getting closer and closer to this leader. And we're going to dinners. We're really socializing together. Getting comfortable with one another. And when comfortable, well, a leopard will show its spots. And I'm starting to pick up on some subtle clues, and it's hard to put my finger on it, but my spidey senses for racism are ting... And how, when I'm not around, they find out that I'm Black. Put a pin in that story again, but we'll be back.

Last year, someone else got comfortable with me. This time it was a man who was Black and blind. He pulled me to the side -- that must be the way to do these kind of things -- and he says, Bobbi, I love your voice, because you don't sound like you're from the hood. And he had the NERVE to think THAT was a compliment. That is NOT a compliment. That, my friends, is a microaggression.

So in closing, I'll finish the story about the election.

If you recall, my secret is out. And this leader knows that I'm Black.

It's the time of the election, and I walk in con... fi... dent, okay? I'm excited. I'm thrilled to be presented with this opportunity to be president in this organization that I'm just beginning to love. And I notice we have a really large turnout. So I'm happily welcoming all of these unfamiliar faces.

We vote, and I lose.

I later found out that this leader... had paid the dues of these unfamiliar faces. These people had not been paying dues members before. But he had them come to the meeting and paid their dues so they'd be eligible to vote, just so they could vote against me, because he did not want a Black person to be president.

Race is perceived in so many ways. These blind people use their sense of sound, and they use a stereotype based on what it means to "sound Black". President Riccobono, I'd like to thank you for putting together this panel and thus confirming the fact that within this organization, racism must be addressed, acknowledged, and ultimately rectified.

Because I cannot live the life that I want until Black lives matter. Thank you, and rest in peace to John Lewis.

EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Thank you, Bobbi, and next, Tarik, you are up.

TARIK WILLIAMS: Hello, my Federation family. Once again, I want to thank you guys for listening, and for the opportunity. I want to start with having you guys visualize a little bit of a picture that I think about often as I work in service for the blind as an orientation and mobility instructor and student services coordinator. I think about the first time I ever wore sleep shades at Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I remember getting my shade and thinking about how people were interacting and saying on your right or on your left, and how they were able to just be able to move throughout the Center. So efficiently. And so I was feeling as uncomfortable as I did, but I still wanted to be able to do that. So even though I hadn't had any lessons yet. So I had gotten my shades, and I started walking in the hallway, already late to my first class, and heard some people in front of me. So, as I was walking, I said "on your right" and continued walking. I hear a course of action that was changed, so I said "on your right" and continued walking. At first I didn't hear much more, I thought maybe they didn't hear me, so I said "on your right" again, a little bit louder, and we collided. I say that to say, Black people, for so many years, before the Federation, after the Federation, and today, have been saying we're oppressed, but it hasn't changed. So again we're oppressed, and the situation hasn't changed. So we say it again, and then there's a collision. This collision is happening in so many different situations in our world today. We think about all the different things that's going on in the world, and I get the question, Tarik, well, don't you think that we've come a long way in terms of slavery and everything like that? And to be honest, I'll say, yeah, sure, but it's incomplete. So when I think about the incomplete and the work that's yet to be done, thinking about Bobbi brought up the term microaggression. Now, some of the same battles that we fought several -- not generations ago, not even several or some generations ago, we think about Ruby Bridges, the first Black individual to ever go to a white school, and she's only 65 years old. So put that into perspective. Now, when I think about, now, obviously Black people are in schools with white people, and everything like that. But there are some battles we're still fighting today that happened back then, and some new ones now. Bobbi brought up the term microaggression. To go a little bit more in depth on that, it's basically, whether intentional or unintentional, normally to a marginalized group of individuals, a sometimes subtle or not form of discrimination.

So, even though it might be subtle and may not mean much, I do want to be clear that ignorance is not bliss. Because the pain from these different microaggressions, if, you know, you're not accepting the sound of my voice or you're not accepting my Blackness or, Tarik, you know, you might sound a little white, so even though you're Black you're definitely white on the inside, and you're an "Oreo", or maybe saying, Tarik, you sound a little too ghetto in this situation. I think it's important to know that all of us need to be accepted.

I even think about, you know, these different things have happened to me on different occasions as well. Like several different times inside and outside. So what happens, even when I think about the fact that if I tell somebody I'm Black, Tarik, there's no way you can be Black, so let me touch your hair to confirm that, as if I would lie about who I am. I come across to you, my Federation family, as a Black blind individual proud of who I am. And, you know, I'll be honest. There was a time when I was not proud of my blindness at all, and the Federation helped me overcome that. But with that being said, it's important to know that these traits don't define me as a person, but they are important to me, because they make up the person who I am. So I've come to be proud of who I am. When I think about these different microaggressions and the different issues as Black people, and, you know, of all cultures as well. I think about a time and a place where I can be more comfortable and not feel like I have to put on a mask or what have you for who I am as a person. So I just want to leave everybody with this quotation from Langston Hughes who wrote a poem, and he stated that: Let America be again. The land that must be, that hasn't been yet. The land where every individual is free.

Thank you.

EVER LEE HAIRSTON: Thank you, Tarik. As we continue to evolve in our quest for equality and opportunity, we hope this has been an education for you.

We hope we have raised your consciousness regarding racism.

I hope this information that you have heard today will propel you to make changes in your attitude, in your ability to accept and celebrate the differences in America and in the National Federation of the Blind. Together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality.

So let's try a new perspective on diversity. We are all one in the Federation. I want to let you know that we certainly believe in our inspiration, innovation, powerful and inviting. We invite you to get to know us as we make a commitment to know each of you. We love you, and God bless you. Thank you.

RON BROWN: Thank you.

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Ever Lee, and to all of our panelists. We appreciate your honesty and look forward to your leadership to continue the conversation beyond this stage throughout the Federation, to cultivate those honest conversations. We hear you. We hear the strength of your experience and the pain of your experience, and we look forward to having the opportunity to more openly and honestly bring those things to the front so we can figure how to build a stronger organization full of people who are stronger and prouder of all of their characteristics. So thank you to all of you for agreeing to do this. Could we have a door prize in honor of this panel?