Dear Human Rights Commission,
Please accept my apology in not being able to deliver this in person as I am teaching a college course at the same time of this meeting.
Last summer I had the impactful experience of participating in a Witnessing Whiteness Group that met in Kirkwood. To get to how this impacted me, I will have to backtrack. I was raised in Kirkwood and attended the public school system from Robinson Elementary through Kirkwood High School. I treasure the education I received and I have fond memories of a quaint childhood full of friendships, many of which I’ve continued to maintain. My mother, Kathy Paulsen, was involved in local projects from girl scouts and church groups, to councilperson campaigns and tree planting initiatives. Due to this wealth of experiences, I thought I was informed about life in Kirkwood.
The Kirkwood City Council Shooting was a tragic life changing moment for my family as we were left to make sense of the loss of my mom’s closest friend, Connie Karr. My mother regularly attended council meetings discussing and presenting issues at these meetings. From my observation, she, along with a group of friends, had spent years trying to make their voices heard. In the aftermath of the shooting, I had a hard time understanding how race played a part in the events that night. I now attribute this lack of understanding to my own color blindness.
At healing sessions after the shooting, I felt there was a much more complicated story that was missing. Talking with women connected to Connie, we discussed making a film, and this desire to understand the tragedy propelled me to begin that four year long process.
Along the way I interviewed a woman of color from Meacham Park. Her stories made me realize how little I understood about Meacham Park. I did not know its history. I did not know how large it had been originally vs. how small it had become. I did not know about the population loss that the community experienced following the Target/Walmart development. Seeing my own ignorance about a community that was a part of my hometown opened my eyes to the fact that I had not been experiencing a full perception of Kirkwood. This understanding lined up with my attending a Witnessing Whiteness Introductory meeting. This meeting was the first times I can remember acknowledging the privilege I experience as a white heterosexual able bodied educated woman.
With questions in my heart, I began to attend Witnessing Whiteness meetings at a home in Kirkwood. These meetings became one of the biggest healing tools I have experienced with regards to my understandings of: the life of Cookie Thornton, living in a racially segregated city, and my relationships with people of color.
On a personal level I could look back and ask these questions: Why did I have so few close friendships with people of color while growing up in Kirkwood? Why couldn’t I remember people of color participating in my school’s gifted programs? Why did I remember middle school as a more diverse environment than high school-a place where we became racially separated via Honors and AP classes? How had my inability to acknowledge my own white privilege damaged or prevented my friendships with persons of color from going deeper? How had I denied a person of color’s feeling that they had experienced racism living in Kirkwood? I continue to find new questions to ask myself and this process has made my life more meaningful.
From what I am learning, institutional racism thrives on colorblindness, our ability to deny that race and privilege exist and are a lense by which people experience life. Furthermore we remain living in a racially segregated society that is entrenched and perpetuated by a quietly racist system. I as a white person am not always able to see the hidden workings of this system although I live with it every day. From the words of Mark Warren, “With whites living in racial isolation from blacks, we form few friendships with people of color and subsequently are less knowledgeable about racial inequities.” I’ve come to understand that as a result of this, if I don’t make an effort, I will remain a part of a mostly white community. I view Kirkwood as a primarily white experience.
If you don’t think this is true, ask yourself: How often am I in the company of people of color? How often am I a minority? How many close friends of color do I have?
To be true, as a white person I find it incredibly difficult to talk about race and white privilege and I think this is part of the racial beliefs we’ve inherited. Witnessing Whiteness has helped me to start doing this work. I think the citizens of Kirkwood would greatly benefit from participating in this program. I would hope that one of the many things that might spring from this tragedy would be for the Kirkwood community to be a leader in race work. But the work has to start with us, according to Witnessing Whiteness author Shelly Tochluk “everyone who lives in this country has a personal stake in healing our relationship to race if we are ever going to be able to move past it. Everyone”.
I look forward to the day when we stop building upon Meacham Park and instead commit to protect its rich legacy as an African American community. I want to see a museum in Meacham Park where everyone can learn about its history like its incredible baseball team in the early 1900s. I’m going to cheer when there is a council person and even Mayor from Meacham Park. My fear is that its going to be gone before we’ve realized what we’ve lost.