Effecting positive change
Race relations expert shares quest for understanding
By Kris Leonhardt
STEVENS POINT – Race relations expert, Daryl Davis, 65, shared his quest for positive change to a packed theater in the UW-Stevens Point Dreyfus University Center on Feb. 15.
Davis has spent four decades connecting with Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist group leaders to answer the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
Davis said that he wasn’t exposed to racism until the age of 10 and that was when he formed that question.
“My parents were in the U.S. Foreign Service. And so that means I grew up as an American Embassy brat traveling all around the world starting at the age of three in 1961,” Davis recalled.
“And my first exposure to school was overseas. How it works is you get assigned to a country for two years, and then you come back home here to you here for a few months, perhaps a year if you request it, and then you’re back overseas again to another country for two years, back and forth, back and forth.
“I did kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade, all in different countries. And my classes overseas were filled with kids from all over the world. If they had an embassy where we were assigned, their kids went to the same school.
“My classmates were from Nigeria, Japan, Poland, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, anybody that had an embassy there, all of their children were to the same school.
“Every time I’d come back home, I would either be an all black or black and white school, meaning the still segregated or the newly integrated. And just because desegregation was passed by the Supreme Court for years before I was born in 1954, schools did not integrate overnight. It took years and years for schools to integrate, right?
“So, one of the times when I came back here, I was age 10 in 1968, in the fourth grade, and I went to a newly integrated school in which I was one of two black children in the entire school.”
There, Davis joined the Cub Scouts along with his male friends
“I was the only black scout in the area. This is in Belmont, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. And we had a parade there right next door to Belmont is the town of Lexington, Massachusetts. We had a parade it was a Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Brownies, 4-H clubs and some other organizations. It’s called Patriots Day and we march from Lexington to Concord, Massachusetts, to commemorate the ‘Ride of Paul Revere,’” he explained.
“So, the streets are blocked off. The sidewalks on either side are lined with nothing but white people waving and cheering and having a good time. And everybody’s smiling. Some people are yelling, ’The British’ are coming and that kind of thing until we got to a certain point in the parade route. When suddenly, boom, I’m getting hit with bottles and soda pop cans by a few people over on the sidewalk.
“Not everybody was doing this. I would say maybe four or five people I remember there being a couple of kids, maybe a year or two older than me. I did not know them and a couple of adults who were throwing things. I assumed maybe it was their parents, but it’s coming from my right side over on the sidewalk.
“And, when it happened, having never had any previous experience with this, I had no precedent for this.
“I didn’t realize that I was the only Scout getting hit until my den mother, my cub master, my troop leader all came running back and huddled over me with their bodies and quickly escorted me out of the danger.
“And I kept asking ‘Why are they doing this? I didn’t do anything to them. What did I do? I didn’t do anything.’ And so I’m trying to you know, figure out I’m trying to justify why they’re doing this.”
That encounter led him on a 40-year search for an answer.
Davis said that he met those individuals that seek to hate him with civility, patience and listening, in an effort to understand and effect positive change.
“As human beings, we want these five core values in our lives: everybody wants to be loved; everybody wants to be respected; everybody wants to be heard; everybody wants to be treated fairly and truthfully; everybody wants the same things for their family as we want for our family,” Davis explained.
“And if we can learn to apply those five core values or any of those values when we find ourselves in an adversarial situation or in a society or culture in which we are uncomfortable or unfamiliar, I can guarantee you that our navigation of that situation, that culture, that society will be much more smooth and much more positive. And that’s how I’m able to navigate my conversations with people who are the polar opposites of me.”
Davis said that he believes that a missed opportunity for dialogue is a missed opportunity for resolution and that sitting around casting blame wastes time.
“Your society, your city, your country can only become one of two things – one, what you sit back and watch it become, or two, that which you stand and make it become. So, you have to ask yourselves a question, do I want to sit back and see what my country becomes or do I want to stand up and make my country become what I want to see?
“I chose the latter.”