by Ever Lee Hairston, Denice Brown, Ron Brown, Bobbi Pompei, and Tarik Williams
From the Editor: At this time in the history of our country, we are forced to confront some very painful truths. The treatment we receive as Americans is not always just, and a significant factor in the way we are treated depends on the color of our skin. Not only is this true in our country, but sometimes it is true in this Federation we share. This panel, which appeared on the agenda late on Saturday afternoon, was one of the most moving events of the convention. Its members came from diverse parts of the country, and every one of them holds leadership positions in the organization from service as a national officer, service on our national board, and service as a chapter president. Here is what the panel said to an audience dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and the promise to be an organization for all blind people. President Riccobono starts by saying:
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 we're able to discuss the intersectionality 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 the truth is that's not true. That's just another ableist misconception about our capacity and our participation in society. 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!
EVER LEE HAIRSTON: 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 fifty-seven 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. So let us focus now on the topic of today, not blind to color in the Federation: black and blind experiences in America and in the National Federation of the Blind.
Our perspective on diversity should be clear: 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 is one 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. So that's what I did. When I arrived at the hotel and 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 for being in a state that I had never visited, anxious to meet in person the president. So I left my hotel room, went to the elevator bank, and stood 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." 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 I got on. Still trying to be polite and cordial, I said, "Ladies, are you coming on?”
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. I knew that I could not stoop to her level. But the one thing that helped me was thinking of a quote, and the author is Lao Tzu, a mystic philosopher of ancient China, best known as the author of Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power). It goes like this: "Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, 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. First on the panel today we have Ron Brown. 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 thirty-three years. He is also president of our Indiana affiliate, and he has been a member of the Federation for forty years. We have leaders on this panel.
Our second panelist is Denice Brown. Denice hails from Philadelphia, 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 seventeen years.
Next we have Bobbi Pompey. Bobbi comes from my home state, which is the Tar Heels of North Carolina. Bobbi is an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University. She serves as the chairperson of the scholarship program in the National Federation of the Blind of California, where she lives now, and she works for the San Francisco LightHouse.
Last but not least 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.
We're now going to hear from our panelists in that order. Ron, take it away.
RON BROWN: Thank you, Ever. 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."
It kind of took me by surprise, so I said, "Okay."
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 keep your hands on top of the steering wheel. I also want you, if they ask for your license, to 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!"
My father told me 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 secure, 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, and someone said to me, "Hey, you, come here. Show me your license." I never thought I would have to bring back up the Talk, because I had 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."
I said to him, "So, officer, what did I do wrong?"
He said to me, "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 from her home and navigate to the bus stop." I said, "What is my crime?" This officer didn't answer, so I answered for him. "So my crime is walking while black?" He still didn't answer, so I chalked it up as ignorance and let it go.
About two weeks later, I was 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 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?" 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, I'm in there looking through the clothing because I'm preparing to go to a special event on an upcoming weekend. 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." That took me aback for a moment. 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 percent 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. I got a phone call from a school district saying that they saw my resumé, they knew I had just graduated from college six months earlier, and 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 I could get down to the office to have an interview. So I made my appointment, and I spoke to the same person that I 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's office, 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. I said, "Well, someone told me the same thing about my being fresh out of school. They said you knew that I had just gotten out of school and that I would be good for the job for that very reason."
He said, "Well, there was a mistake."
Well, I understood what that meant. My address—he saw it, and probably my name, too. It 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 forty-two 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 had to learn things, I started seeking out individuals who had been in leadership so that I could learn. I had twenty years of education under my belt as a teacher, and I wanted to do other things. I wanted to be involved with other committees.
With my education background, I thought I'd be a good candidate for one of the committees, the scholarship committee 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, and membership kept going up. I continued to attend state and national conventions, Washington Seminar, volunteering at possibility fairs, reading speeches from banquets.
Youth Slam came up. I decided that I should be a volunteer. It made a lot of 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. But I kept on doing, and I kept on participating and getting involved in whatever I could with the NFB. 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 them—they are highly cherished.
What I want to say to some of my Federation friends is that 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 it 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 POMPEI: 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 to 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 voices of our screen readers to the different taps of our cane tips, 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. 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. 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 that I was going with stopped in the hallway and pulled me over to the side. 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.
Now let me go back to my election and my presidential bid. Over the convention, I'm getting closer and closer to this leader; 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 spotting senses for racism are tingling. And somehow, 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 goes, “Bobbi, I love your voice because you don’t sound like you’re from the hood." 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 confident, 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 dues-paying 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 this 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 SAAVI Services 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 the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I remember getting my shades and thinking about how people were interacting and saying "on your right" or "on your left" and how they were able to just move throughout the center so efficiently.
So feeling as uncomfortable as I did, I still wanted to be able to do that, even though I hadn't had any lessons yet. I had gotten my shades, and I started walking in the hallway, already late to my first class. I heard some people in front of me. As I was walking, I said "on your right" and continued walking. I thought their course was changing, so I said "on your right" and continued walking. At first I wasn't hearing much more, so maybe they had heard or maybe not. I thought maybe they didn't hear me, so I said "on your right" again, a little bit louder, but their course had not changed, and we collided.
I tell you this story to say that black people, for so many years—before the Federation, during the Federation, and now—we're oppressed, but the course of action 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 are 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."
Now, we are still fighting some of the same battles today that we fought not so many generations ago—we think about Ruby Bridges, the first black individual to ever go to a white school, and she's only sixty-five years old. So put that into perspective. Obviously black people are in schools with white people, but there are some battles we're still fighting today that happened back then and some new ones now.
When I think about the word I use to tell people about our progress, the word is incomplete, and the work that's yet to be done, I think about the term microaggression. Bobbi brought up the term. Microaggression is intentional or unintentional discrimination. It may be subtle or not so subtle. It is normally experienced by a marginalized group. Even though it might be subtle and may not mean much, I do want to be clear that ignorance is not bliss. Because microaggressions cause pain. If you're not accepting the sound of my voice or you're not accepting my blackness, that hurts. When you say, "Tarik, you don't sound black. Let me touch your hair to see if you are telling the truth,” that hurts. Why would I lie about being black? Why would anyone question me? When you say, "Tarik, you sound a little white, so even though you're black, you're definitely white on the inside, and you're an "Oreo." That's painful. Are you saying it's better to be white and trying to compliment me? It is painful when you say, "Tarik, you sound a little too ghetto in this situation." What does that mean—what is wrong with my sound? Did I ask how I should sound or criticize you about the way you sound? I think it's important to know that all of us need to be accepted.
I want to come across to you, my Federation family, as a Black, blind individual, proud of who I am. 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. 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 I am, and I have come to be proud of who I am. I want us to get beyond microaggression and other forms of discrimination. I want our Federation and our society to be a place where I can be comfortable and not feel like I have to put on a mask.
I want to leave everybody with this quotation from Langston Hughes, who wrote a poem in which he says: "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 grand personality, 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.