Sink or Swim; in Code
Overcoming Institutional Racism Through Shared Understanding
Ruby Cain’s story written by Aimee Robertson-Fant
Ruby is 64 years old
I didn’t know what to do.
My sister and I were walking home from school and saw the police swarming around my father in our driveway.
They were there to arrest him.
Looking into my father’s face, I understood that something unjust was happening to him, right in front of our eyes, but I was too young to understand just what that was; I was only 9, my sister, 8. What could we do? With as much dignity as he could gather, he unlocked the door, told us to go into the house and call our mom at work.
I called. Through confusion, tears and hysteria, I tried to relay to her the police were taking our father away. I could barely find my words.
He didn’t argue with them. He was stoic and calm, for us, but inside he must have been broken and humiliated.
They took him to jail, under false arrest.
My father was a city bus driver, a law-abiding citizen, and never even received a traffic ticket. We later learned the bank robber looked nothing like my father in height, build, nor complexion; the only common and distinguishing characteristic between my father and this bank robber was their race; they were both black men.
I lived in Detroit during the riots of 1967 and 68, through all the curfews, violence, the “blind pig” raid headlines, and property destruction. As a young girl, I read all about it in the paper. My parents and others talked about the 20 black men found at the bottom of the Detroit River.
I read about and listened to others talk about a black man walking from home to the bus station to work third shift. He did not know the city was under curfew. The police told him to stop, but he was deaf and could not hear the command. They riddled him with bullets, in his back. He presented no threat. He was just a black man who was deaf, going to work.
While our family was stopped at a red light, we saw in the adjacent alley, 3 police officers beating a black, possibly, homeless man who was begging them to stop. Who do you call when there is a disturbance, a violent attack? You call the police. But what if the attackers are the police?
These experiences with police were in stark contrast to the other experiences in my childhood of a predominantly segregated and nurturing family, neighborhood, church, and school. We knew all police officers were not hostile, but we did not know if an encounter would be position or negative. Decades later, as I reflect back, no one could or would even be willing to report this dark side of blue culture, not like today.
As an African American girl (living in Detroit) blue code was among the first codes I would learn and as one of the first female African American leaders in the Information Technology field, I would learn many codes.
Moving to the North from the South was disorienting. It was easier to live among the overt South vs. the covert North. In the South many decades ago, you knew exactly what you were dealing with; whites who didn’t care for blacks would stay away and not try to pretend. When my family moved to Detroit, where there was neighborhood and subdivision de Facto segregation and red-lining; we felt more like immigrants than Americans, having lived in Camden, Arkansas, where everyone knows everyone on your block, there was sense of community and we knew who our friends were and who they were not.
Fast forward. As a young African American woman, college graduate, I decided to enter the Information Technology field. I unknowingly blazed a new trail, but not before I was left to sink or swim, with no mentor and no guidance; left to my own devices-my own mathematical mind and my own two hands and feet; there are barriers placed in your way- you learn how find a way around them quickly or have the doors close the doors in your face.
Of course, everyone has help along the way. My help, nurture, and guidance, came from family, church, and friends, mostly, outside of the workplace. They believed in me. They encouraged me all the way through my doctoral studies.
I came to Indiana at the beginning of my evolving IT career for an interview conducted by 3 white men. Although I interviewed well and answered many irrelevant questions I was not offered the job because they said I was “overqualified”. Interestingly enough, a number of years later this company faced a lawsuit for discrimination and ended up moving from the state.
What I found along the way in my IT positions is that no one actively tried to sabotage me. Instead, they gave me nearly impossible assignments that I had to figure out on my own while providing a roadmap and guidance to my Caucasian counterparts. I was first to arrive to work and last to leave, many days.
I was tested over and over. I just made myself irreplaceable and developed skills no one else had. This is how I swam. I could write my own ticket and won several regional and national awards through the course of my career. I was named the most successful data processing information project manager in both Arkansas and California.
Today, I am in Indiana and have followed my drive to be an educator. I have taught at Ball State and in Fort Wayne, and today, I have focused my energy on healing internalized and institutional racism through shared understanding. There is still a sense of unearned privilege, if not by class, but by the fact that most institutions are run by whites, but not built by them. It will take time for this to be right-sided and our due diligence is to have patience with equal parts persistence.
We can’t just put things into nice, neat boxes, and construct a “things not to say” list or worse, say that we are colorblind. If you are colorblind, you don’t see me. I am not allowed to forget I am a person of color, nor will I ever want to.
We have to stop censoring ourselves when we speak to one another. It’s okay to make mistakes. I have learned that you must ask questions to grow. You must stop believing someone doesn’t like me because they aren’t “like” me. We must understand “the why”; always make sure you understand why we are different and why we are the same. So often we are afraid of saying the wrong things when speaking to and trying to crack the code of our differences, particularly surrounding race relations.
Speak up. Ask the questions.
You do not have to be the savior to make a difference – just be one of the foot soldiers.
For me, I just learn the codes and keep swimming.
Read the original story on the RACE Muncie Facing Project Page
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