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Taking bold steps to combat racism

by Elta Jackson-Henry

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Elta Jackson-Henry
1995 and 1996, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work

During my formative years, I had no idea that the maxim instilled in me, “To whom much is given, much is required,” was taken directly from the Bible verse Luke 12:48. Come to find out, neither did my young, Louisiana-born mother who set the foundation of my “much” with creativity, resourcefulness, intentionality, and spiritual fortitude. She credits the grace of God as her parenting manual.

I never knew my father, who passed away a few months before my birth on Jan. 20, 1973. He was a foreign-exchange student at the University of Washington who hailed from Ghana, West Africa. During my coming of age, I took pride in identifying myself as truly being “African-American”! Believe me, it was only a cute cliché.

I was honored to be part of the generation to celebrate the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was first recognized as a national holiday on Jan. 20, 1986. At this time my mother was making a great sacrifice to send me to a Seventh-day Adventist school. MLK day was not recognized there as a holiday that year. I was not sure where to bring my confusion about this. My white friend brought her signature shortbread cookies for my birthday, and my Filipino friend brought her mom’s famous Lumpia, and we played Danish Rounders during gym class with our principal/math teacher/coach. In my developing mind, I believed we represented what Dr. King meant in his “I Have a Dream” speech because we judged each other by the content of our character and not by our skin color. Strangely enough, our parents never got to know one another.

My mother, younger sister, and I made excursions to cultural festivals and nook-and-cranny eateries on the outskirts of Seattle. I remember occasions when we were asked if we were lost. I learned quickly that was code for, “You are making us uncomfortable. Please find your way out, or take your food to go ASAP.” I always held my head up high and would not shy away from the next event if I wanted to experience something new and different, but feeling unwelcome was the pits. My peers apparently believed in my resilience because they would thrust me forward as their fierce leader with “You know how to fit in” or “They like you.” On the other side, I would hear what I thought were affirmations: “You are different,” “So articulate,” “Always funny and making us laugh,” and “I feel so comfortable around you.” My mind swirled with mixed emotions. Did I want this kind of classification or acceptance?
 

‘The best of times ... the worst of times’

I set my sights on the Big Apple or an HBCU for my higher education. I was still happy to travel eastward to Walla Walla College instead. I settled on studying social work and earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It was the best of times. In 1992 Mae C. Jemison was the first African-American women in space on the space shuttle Endeavor, and in 1996 Tiger Woods won the Masters in Augusta, Georgia. It was the worst of times. The L.A. riots were sparked in 1992 after the brutal beating of Rodney King by police.

Meanwhile in 1993, in Conard Hall, after returning to my dorm room from choir rehearsal, I found a neatly cut out hand with a middle finger and a red painted nail taped securely to my door. I searched for my voice and called for a meeting with the deans to mediate a conversation between the black and white girls. Secretly I was hurt and confused about why they chose my door. It was determined that our loud music and louder voices prompted this visual retort. The carefully crafted art piece was destroyed. End of story.

I continued to participate in student government and sang songs of joy more for my own therapy than anything else. Although I tried to maintain my happy-go-lucky persona, in the years to follow I misdirected my unhappiness toward my white female friends and others who tried to get close to me. I did not trust that they were genuine. They were pairing off and finding mates while I was not invited to chapel or vespers. Not once, ever.

The great Wilma Hepker, founder and professor emeritus of the WWU School of Social Work and Sociology, noticed my inner conflict. She had a keen eye for all things bio-psycho-social and would often tenderly remind me, “Dear, you are your brother’s keeper, yes, but you are not responsible for your whole race.” I am so grateful for the seeds of wisdom she planted in my life, although they took a while to blossom.
 

Making connections coast to coast

I eventually moved to the East Coast in 2005 when my husband accepted a teaching position at an Adventist academy outside of Hamburg, Pennsylvania. If I didn’t realize my minority status in Seattle—where the minority population is less than 8 percent black—this 97-percent-white Pennsylvania-Dutch community with only 0.34 percent of people looking like me made it mind-blowingly evident! I will never forget one of my first encounters at the local laundromat “Die Wascherei.” I greeted a woman there with a warm smile and was met with, “Wow, your teeth are so white.” I later found out that all of her teeth had to be pulled when she was a young adult due to poor dental hygiene. She never traveled outside of her town and assumed I was from the big city of Philadelphia and that I must have moved to Hamburg to be closer to my husband who must be incarcerated in the county prison there. We had many encounters and, keeping the quote from Abraham Lincoln in mind—“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”—she served me my first bowl of chicken pot pie and in turn accepted my offer to listen to one of my favorite gospel tunes by Mahalia Jackson.

I did eventually decide to commute to the big city of Philadelphia to work. There people were more direct and the expectation was that you knew what you were about and how to get there. Looking for a good cheesesteak one evening after work, I took a wrong turn and asked for directions from the wrong group of guys who, not so kindly, told me to go back to wherever I came from quick and in a hurry. This experience and others like them were very important reminders that I was no better than anyone of my same complexion because I happened to speak with a Pacific Northwest accent.

As we know, “Prejudice is defined as making a judgement pre-maturely without having adequate information.” Philly is over 40 percent African-American and many hold positions of civic leadership and prominence, so one would think with that far-reaching reputation I would be given the benefit of the doubt as a college-educated professional. Not so. Although I basked in the glory of vicarious achievement and reveled in the election of our 44th president, Barack Obama, who just so happened to be inaugurated on my 44th birthday, Jan. 20, 2009, I have come to realize that making personal connections with my fellow white brothers and sisters—and anyone else for that matter—are necessary to effect baby-step changes in terms of ending racism.

My mother and younger sister have since joined me here on the East Coast and, like old times, we three take voyages to the outskirts of the city, trying Amish cuisine, visiting local farmers markets, and patronizing off-the-wall boutiques. We are sometimes overlooked for the next white customer or asked if we are lost. Now we are intentional: We give a bright smile, direct eye contact, and engage in conversation expressing interest in their culture and wares being offered. I personally use my assertive “I-message” and say “I feel disrespected when you look past me as though I am not here to help the next person in line. Please take the time to help me complete my purchase first. Thank you.” Drawing attention to inequality at the time it happens can most often wake people up to their behavior.
 

Taking steps and making progress

It took me almost half a century to take some bolder steps in my life, to be a change-maker in the effort to end racism. I believe this is my season to finally use the “much” I have been given. In the words of the late Kwame Nkrumah, first president of the Republic of Ghana, “We face neither east nor west: we face forward.” In my experience “forward” looks like:

  1. Saying hello to my neighbors on a regular basis until we are on a first-name basis and actually can invite each other over for a meal.
  2. Being willing to come out of my comfort zone and lend a helping hand to those in need, even on Sabbath.
  3. Becoming educated about issues in my community that may require advocacy for a group that is being left out or unfairly treated. 
  4. Mentoring young people and helping them embrace differences on multiple levels.
  5. Being genuinely interested in improving relationships by having real conversations and providing a safe place for questions and discussion.
  6. Incorporating diversity into natural lifestyle of worship, social life, family, friendships, and personal experiences so I can fully appreciate it and feel more comfortable.
  7. Enjoying the process and considering it a privilege, not a chore. 

I pray for God’s guidance and wisdom to be a catalyst for change wherever I am, however I can, with whomever I am with, for as long as I can … for it is required. Stay tuned.


Elta Jackson-Henry is an employee assistance specialist with Optum Behavioral Health (United Health Care) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She lives in Reading, with her husband, Wayne Henry ’97. As a choir director and praise team leader for her church, she enjoys using music to help people connect, heal hurts, and break down barriers. She serves meals at the local homeless shelter, works with the NAACP to help educate the community on issues of diversity, and is part of the Reading Rotary.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Westwind.

Last update on March 21, 2019