MCPHERSON – Compared to other communities, racism may not be as big a factor as one may think or see, but it is prevalent and in many cases is more subtle than it is obvious within the community of McPherson itself.
Among those who talked with us about the subject of racism and the McPherson community was Ray Gibbs, a humble man of color who has lived in McPherson since the early 1970’s when he came from Chester, Pennsylvania to play football and attend school at McPherson College; Doug and Tandy Wine, two Caucasian individuals raised in the rural countryside’s of Nebraska and Kansas before attending McPherson College, getting married and adopting Spenser, a child of color; and Dave Barrett and his wife Linda, a multi-racial couple plus their daughter Elle and son Grant.
One of our first questions presented had to do with arriving in McPherson from areas where the culture was different.
“While I grew up in Chester near Philadelphia, it was near the large rural tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York,” noted Ray Gibbs. “It was there that I attended grade school and junior high with a melting pot group of kids. We had Jewish kids, Italian kids, Asians, Greeks, white kids and Puerto Ricans. But by the time I got to high school, it was predominately black.”
Gibbs also noted that coming to McPherson made him realize that the stories his Mom would tell him as a kid about how people of color were being treated in the past were actually mini-history lessons to help prepare him on what to expect in the world ahead of him.
Coming from rural small towns like Imperial, Nebraska for Doug Wine and Winona, Kansas for his wife Tandy, both had their own experiences of arriving in McPherson.
“I was not aware of coming to a campus that I would be interacting with those of different colors or backgrounds,” shared Doug. “I was just excited to be here and became engulfed in football practice where I had a lot of interactions with African-American players. Nothing really stood out to me during those times as we were all part of the football team and that was all we concentrated on.”
As for Tandy, she added, “I was excited to meet people different from myself. My hometown was so homogenous, and McPherson gave me the experience to meet people of all races, religions, backgrounds, and even other countries. It opened my eyes to other cultures and ideas.”
Dave Barrett said, “Neither of us spent much time in the community as we didn’t have a car. The biggest difference I found was that most students had limited experience interacting with black people and most drew their conclusions from television.”
Being black while working in one of the community’s major industries, Gibbs pointed out, “What I noticed was the consistent stereotyping by a few ignorant co-workers as well as the leadership/management team nearly every day. Over time I noticed the bias in how different individuals were being treated and eventually I had a couple of supervisors who did apologize to me for their treatment and/or behavior toward me while also finally acknowledging that I did have a solid work ethic.”
With the Barrett’s being a mixed couple, Dave is black, and Linda is white, the question was asked about how they felt they have been treated.
“We both feel the majority of the people have treated us great,” replied the couple. “There were people that stared, but that was not unique to just McPherson. Both our families had concerns, especially when we had children. We both feel McPherson has evolved as society has. As for racism toward our marriage, we can’t really answer that because it was more covert and lately some people have felt empowered to say anything they want but both forms are wrong.”
After having kids, the Barrett’s did not consider challenges raising them in McPherson as coming from racism as much as ignorance of not understanding.
The Barrett’s daughter, Elle, shared that, “It was the things that people didn’t feel were racist but were that I noticed, like when they would say things such as ‘what are you mixed with’, ‘is that your normal hair’, ‘you’re pretty for a black person’, or ‘you’re not really black’. There could have been worse things that could’ve been said, but those comments still were hurtful.”
Doug and Tandy’s son Spenser, a recent graduate of Washburn University, said, “Pretty early on in my life I realized that I may be treated differently because of the color of my skin. I was not older than first grade when a group of kids at McDonald’s said I could not play with them because I was black. Growing up, my parents did a good job of explaining to me that no matter what my personality is like, some people will treat me differently because of the color of my skin. Having two, well known white parents, I believe provided with me a type of shield from the racism that other African-Americans may have experienced in this community.”
Have things changed in the community, Doug Wine, an elementary school teacher commented, “I remember my African-American friends would be pulled over by the police for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate, and I know they were followed around in stores by the employees, something that has continued through the years from what I have heard. Being a teacher, I do not think racism is a problem in the elementary schools as much as it is in middle school and high school. I am confident that racism is taught at home and not at school.”
Gibbs added, “When Barack Obama was elected President, the true colors of bias and racism became more prevalent.”
As for the future, Doug and Tandy Wine both agreed that as Spenser wanders out into the world they worry about him having an encounter with law enforcement officers that could end up with him being hurt or worse, such as not coming home.
“I worry about Spenser crossing paths with a violent racist or that he will ‘match the description’ of a suspect because he is black,” added Tandy. “These are the kind of thoughts that keep me up at night.”
As we finished up our questions and conversations with the group, each were asked about the current crisis over racism in our country and how they felt about the efforts locally with the Black Lives Matter walk.
According to Ray Gibbs, it is hope, as he said, “The marches and protests we are having now include a solid show of diversity, something we did not have as much of during the civil rights movement in the 60’s. The Black Lives Matter walk here in McPherson impressed me by the diversity and ages of the overall group as well as the number of people who participated and brought their younger children with them – this gave me hope for the future.”
Gibbs concluded his comments by adding, “It will all come down to attitude and the fact that it is now pretty much in the lap of the white community to call out and invest in a conversation about racism within the community and country.”
The Barrett’s pointed out that, “The crisis has been ongoing but there are reasons for hope. There are now many people from many backgrounds carrying the torch for Black Lives Matter all over the world. We would just encourage people to have the difficult conversations as it is not a political issue for us, it is a human rights issue.”
Tandy Wine was pleasantly surprised with the Black Live Matter walk in McPherson.
“I had seen comments on social media from people who were against the event,” she said. “Some were in complete denial that there are any issues between law enforcement and the black community, and others were afraid that the event would bring rioting to McPherson. So, between the deniers, those afraid, and the beastly hot weather, I did not have great expectations, but instead I was incredibly pleased and surprised with the large crowd, its diversity, and various ages. I hope that because of the event, we can open a dialogue among people where we can openly talk about issues of race and social justice.”
Tandy concluded her comments by saying, “I want to see law enforcement and minority community people in those conversations, and I want to see McPherson people come together like the community I know we are and CAN BE, to support all of our members, of all races, religions, and orientations.”
After he participated in the walk, Spenser shared his hopes and fears for the future by saying, “My greatest hope is that by the time I am raising my children, I can look back at this point in time and say, ‘I was part of the reason why things are different now’. I hope that my children can walk into places and not be stared at just because they are African Americans. My biggest fear is that nothing changes in response to the recent events and that in another 10-20 years down the road, we will still be having the same conversations.”
Overall, with the entire group that we talked with concerning their road to McPherson and the events of today, as well as their hopes and fears for tomorrow, one thing came to the top of the conversations – we still have work to do, but they all seem to have very high hopes from the most recent actions both here in McPherson and around the nation, that our community and nation are now ready for those tough conversations on racism and social justice.