Civic Engagement

Race: it’s not easy to just ‘get over it’

After a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman last July of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin, “I heard many people say that people of color should just get over issues of race and move on,” Dr. Crystal Sellers Battle recalls.

But the sentiment had the opposite effect on Battle, a Bluffton University music faculty member who subsequently committed to being Bluffton’s 2013-14 civic engagement scholar, leading a yearlong, campuswide conversation about the theme of “Race and Ethnicity in America.”

Speaking at the annual civic engagement forum April 8, she said “I am still stuck with this phrase in my head I cannot get out—Get over it!

“Get over it? Get over what?” the assistant professor of music asked. “Am I holding on to some unreasonable set of circumstances or thoughts that have caused me to not want to let go of ‘whatever’ so I can move on and forget about ‘whatever’?”

Thinking about it more, Battle said, “I realized something—I have a laundry list of things that I think I should, America should, fill-in-the-blank race should get over, but would that really solve the problem?”

To help illustrate “why racism still exists and that getting over it isn’t really that simple,” she showed a segment from the TV show “What Would You Do?” in which a white haircutter faces prejudice in a Harlem barbershop, and shared two personal “shopping while black” stories.

In one of the stories, Battle and her sister were in a high-end jewelry store in Chicago, “and it became abundantly clear that the salespeople believed that we did not have the means to purchase anything in the store,” she said.

While shopping in a comparable department store in Columbus for a recital gown, she had a similar experience. “The salespeople on the floor followed me with their eyes during the browsing and were shocked when I asked to try on a gown—one that I am certain they thought I was not able to afford,” Battle related. “Once I tried on the dress and decided that I would buy it, the salesperson was surprised and then decided that she wanted to sell me everything in the store. The gown was all I needed, and I made a point of telling her what it was for.

“I can only imagine what she thought when she realized that I also sang classical music.”

Considering what she needs “to personally get over in order to feel more comfortable about myself and my interactions with, and perceptions of, people of other races,” Battle identified five obstacles that she admittedly struggles to overcome and also, she added, “make it difficult for me to believe that racial peace is achievable.”

Those obstacles include perceptions, fear and inequality, as well as slavery and what she termed “the war among ourselves.”

Slavery hit closer to home for Battle when she and her mother started to research their ancestry four years ago. At the Family Search Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, “we sat there for a few hours just trying to find anything about our family,” Battle said. They finally learned that her maternal great-great-great-grandfather was biracial—and sold into slavery by the time he was 9 years old.

“The name of the family who owned my family is embedded in my brain, and it is very difficult to forget. It was painful to see even on paper,” she acknowledged. “Because of this, both my mother and I have started a journey with Ancestry DNA to find out more about who we are.”

Explaining “the war among ourselves,” she said she finds “a push to avoid the immediate concern or the feelings of the person involved” when discussing race with some people.

“It seems safer to address the issues of everyone,” Battle continued. “So if I talk about racial profiling among people of Middle Eastern descent—which may impact someone in the room at the time—the idea is to try to one-up the situation by saying, ‘Well, this ethnic group had to deal with this, too.’”

“Do we ignore the elephant in the room by talking about the dinosaurs that were once in another room?” she asked.

Battle left her listeners with a list “of what we can get over” to build a better community. Those “wishes and dreams” include: not assuming that “those who don’t look like you have nothing in common with you”; speaking up without fear when encountering injustice; combating anger and hostility with peace and love; being true to yourself regardless of race and ethnicity; and knowing your history so “you will not be part of the movement to repeat it.”

Also among the items on her list: “To stop suggesting that ignoring the issue of race will make it go away because, unfortunately,” she added, “it won’t.”

-B-

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