How a white girl learned white supremacy in a liberal suburb of Rochester, NY: A love letter to white Rochesterians
Update: I was interviewed on WXXI about this post. Check out the radio segment here.
My love for Rochester runs deep. I endured 18 long gray winters there in the 1980s and 90s (BHS class of ‘98!), delighted in many magical snow falls, and slept in sleeping bags lined up with my younger brothers and parents by our fireplace during the ice storm of 1991. I cherished the sounds of cicadas on warm summer days, buzzing in the grand old trees off of East Avenue. I spent every Christmas Eve singing carols at the end of Nunda Blvd, I enjoyed getting dressed up for bat mitzvahs, I smoked cigarettes as a young teenager on Cobbs Hill (though I probably wished I was doing that much more often than I actually was), I laughed and barfed on the rides at Seabreeze, and I bought my first tapes (Pearl Jam) and CDs at Fantastic Records.
When I learned of Daniel “Rell” Prude’s murder by Rochester Police District officers, the news hit me in the gut. As I’ve watched the news unfold about Daniel, and the RPD’s cowardly and violent response to peaceful protests day after day, I’ve been reflecting from my home in Atlanta, and talking with my family and Rochester friends about what’s happening. I haven’t lived in Rochester for more than 20 years, but it will always be my first home. I’ve cycled between rage and sadness and numbness as I’ve followed the stories of unjust Black death since Michael Brown’s murder in 2014. This time it is my hometown on display for the world to see, as another place where cops and mayors are unwilling to account, and another place where Black life is treated as disposable.
I left Rochester at age 18, with no self awareness about my whiteness, no education about the system of white supremacy, and no skills to name dynamics of race and racism that were happening all around me and inside my own body. Now, at age 40, I am a white antiracist facilitator and consultant to nonprofit and other organizations across the U.S. Getting here has been a very slow and intentional process of unlearning what I was taught during those first 18 years of my life about race.
My parents moved us from the city of Rochester to the adjacent suburb of Brighton when I was five, so that my younger brothers and I could go to “good schools.” I didn’t question this choice as a young person. Brighton sent scores of kids to Ivy League colleges every year, and the way I see it now after knowing more about other peoples’ public and private school experiences across the U.S., is that going to Brighton Public Schools was kind of like going to private school for free. As a curious kid, I was consistently challenged and stimulated by my schooling there. But looking back, it’s very clear to me that “good schools” was code language for whiter schools. Most of what children learn about how we are expected to behave is from what we observe the adults around us doing or not doing, far more than the words they say. The message I took in as a child was that as a white kid, I deserved to go to highly rated schools with more kids who looked like me. And conversely, that the city schools where most of the Black kids went were inferior schools not meant for kids who look like me. No one said it so plainly. But I got the sense that this arrangement was unfortunate, but somewhat to be expected, maybe even normal, and certainly not unjust or something we could or should do something about. I was not educated about what led our neighborhoods to be so segregated, by race and class. I was not educated about the laws and unjust structures that kept wealth concentrated in the area’s white suburbs like Brighton and Pittsford. It was known as a fundamental truth--Brighton schools were the best around. In fact, our schools were “so wonderful” that there was a program that bussed Black students from the city to our schools. This is how I learned to associate good with white, and bad with Black. This is how I learned antiBlackness.
The message got reinforced as I got tracked into advanced and then AP classes and saw that only one or two of my Black classmates got tracked along with me. And that is how I was not taught to see my Black classmates as brilliant; and how I was taught to associate smart with white (and sometimes Asian too). Is this making you uncomfortable to read? Are you breathing a sigh of relief to hear someone admit the truth? It’s embarrassing and also freeing for me to write; I aim to name these subconscious beliefs explicitly because I know it is impossible to uproot poisonous beliefs if we can’t admit they exist. While there are many things I loved about my experiences in Brighton, I would not now say that I received an excellent education. An excellent education would have been one in which, even if demographics stayed the same, the adults had taught us to question why our schools and neighborhoods were so segregated by race, and had taught us to break our allegiance to white supremacy.
Despite the racial diversity of my classes in Brighton (yes, there were Black kids, Jewish kids, Russian kids, Chinese kids, Indian kids, and more) I do not recall any talk of race or of systemic racial injustice by my teachers at Brighton Public Schools. If I am truly honest about it, I know that us white kids whose families were not recent immigrants were meant to feel, and most often felt, that these schools were ours, that we belonged there, and that the kids we saw as other (because of skin color or accent or class status) were somehow lucky to be there. These differences were often tolerated, but being tolerated can be insulting. Sometimes they weren't even tolerated.
Consider your own experiences at home, at school, at church or synagogue as a child. What did you observe the adults around you saying or not saying, doing or not doing, related to race? What messages did you take in about your own race and the races of other people as a result? What conclusions did you draw from these experiences?
I know that if I hadn’t been doing the work and unlearning I’ve been doing over the last 20 years, I could be watching this news of Daniel Prude’s murder and the ensuing protest and think “what does this have to do with me?” It has everything to do with white middle and upper class folks like me who were raised in Rochester and who live in the Rochester area who avoid taking responsibility for the racist systems we (materially, at least) benefit from, and who adhere to the system of white supremacy which exists for the purpose of “preserving white peoples’ comfort, wealth, wellbeing, and embodied sense that [we] are the supreme standard of what it means to be human.”
I also know that I was taught at home and at school to trust the police, to see police as people who would protect me and people like me. There was an implied message underneath that, since I grew up in the 80s during the War on Drugs, that the media and government put a lot of money into brainwashing us into seeing our young Black peers as dangerous and criminal. How do these false beliefs live in the RPD today, unconscious or conscious? Why is it so much easier for us white folks to presume the best intentions of the cops and to assume it was Daniel who made a misstep, than to see the full humanity and dignity of Daniel Prude? Why is it such a big leap for us to support efforts to substantially reduce the budgets of our police departments? I know from my work consulting with nonprofit and government agencies across the U.S. over the last decade, that the origins of each institution sets their culture. Culture is the hardest part of an organization to change--it’s the way people do things, what people value, what gets rewarded, what gets punished. American police forces were founded to protect white wealthy people and their “property”, to criminalize poor folks, and to trap Black folks who escaped enslavement and return them to their white enslavers to be brutalized further. Our current system of policing will continue to impact Indigenous and Black communities with the highest rates of police murders as long as the current system stays in place.
White Rochesterians, I love you. I love us. I believe in us. The legacy of white supremacy can end with us if we choose to make it so.
White folks tend to teach each other that being good people means not talking about race, not seeing race. I was taught a version of history and current events that made it easy to draw the conclusion that people had what they had because of what they deserved. These falsehoods set up white children to grow up to be white adults who patronize Black people, disrespect Black peoples’ leadership, and run companies and institutions that preserve and increase white wealth while exploiting Black labor and Black communities. These falsehoods set up white children to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, to not be willing to question the validity of policing, and to defend racist policies.
Rochester is a place with memorable seasons. This September 2020 will go down in the history of Rochester for 12+ days of consecutive action in the streets and occupation of City Hall, spurred by the news of Daniel Prude’s murder going public and amidst a national era of proBlack uprisings during COVID-19. In 20 years, what stories will be told about this time in Rochester? What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask you how you showed up during this time? In particular, what risks and actions are you taking to support and amplify the racial justice work of the Black organizers on the ground in Rochester? One thing I have learned from Alicia Garza and other Black leaders is that ending white supremacy is white peoples' work to do. I’ll say that again: ending white supremacy is white peoples' work to do. White people created the structures and institutions that keep the system of white supremacy in place. We can play a role in interrupting and ending racism and white supremacy in our homes and families, in our workplaces, in our own minds, and in the city of Rochester. We need to play this role en masse. We’re late. The time is now.
If you love Rochester, as I do, please consider:
2020 is a choice point. Each of us has more opportunities to show up than we realize. How am I showing up? How are you showing up?
Jen Willsea is an Atlanta-based queer mama, sewist and dreamer living on unceded Muscogee territory and on a Civil War battle site, with settler colonial ancestors who left Holland and England in the 1600s to claim Haudenosaunee and Wampanoag land. Her personal antiracism journey began almost 20 years ago as a young activist. For more than a decade, Jen has guided groups across the U.S. to strengthen their social and racial justice work--as a facilitator, coach, consultant, and organizer. She is recognized in Atlanta and across the U.S. as one of the most highly skilled white anti-racist facilitators of our time. People know Jen as open, warm, strategic, reliable, and unwavering in her commitment to living with integrity and in community to build a future beyond white supremacy. In partnership with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color colleagues, Jen supports leaders and multiracial organizations across the U.S. to deepen their antiracism commitments and skill by leading racial affinity groups, multiracial antiracism sessions, and long-term antiracist organizational culture change. Jen also supports white leaders and groups to break allegiance to whiteness, unravel white conditioning, and co-create white anti-racist culture and practices. Find out more: www.jenwillsea.com.