From intolerance to empathy

I read with despair the stories of Brandeisians’ personal experiences with racism [“It’s a Moment of Racial Reckoning. Is It Also a Moment of Real Change?” Fall/Winter 2020]. Such incidents are not new, and similar accounts abound at this time.

As a white man, I cannot know exactly the “consequences of being Black.” I can only assume it is akin to what nonheterosexuals have historically experienced, and still do today, in a systemically heterosexual-dominated society, or what those from the poor and working classes experience when they enter elite institutions of higher education — insults, smugness, patronization, violence, exclusion and microaggressions.

That said, I suspect all forms of intolerance are much deeper and hold infinitely more complicated stories than the currently popular yet limited narratives reveal. It’s a long social journey from domination and intolerance to understanding and empathy.

This journey best includes many voices, experiences and perspectives.

Barry L. Adams, PhD’11
Tucson, Arizona

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I was extremely moved by the voices of alumni, faculty and staff who described their experiences with anti-Black racism in daily life. I thank them for sharing these painful stories. I know the cost of these retellings can be high and the rewards negligible, perhaps at times only marginally better than silence.

Reading that the friend of Bobbie Norman ’22 was told to “fix his face” made me gasp. The reference by Kaamila Mohamed ’11 to being “killed slowly” via commonplace verbal aggressions, the comment by Aviva Davis ’21 about having developed “thicker skin” and the poignant critique of congeniality by Janice Johnson Dias ’94 all speak to our chronic, violent censorship of Black voices. Brandeis should increase and accelerate its promotion of such expression with every tool available. We need these voices now more than ever.

Jennifer M. Ivers, PhD’98

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I applaud the cover story in your Fall/Winter issue. However, I am extremely disappointed you chose to negate the fact that racism affects other racial groups by not writing a more inclusive article. Asian Americans have also experienced personal and professional discrimination, and we would have welcomed an opportunity to tell our stories.

Amy Lam ’86
Sammamish, Washington

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Just a note congratulating you and your staff on the lucid commentary on race by students, faculty and graduates in the Fall/Winter issue. Outstanding presentation!

Nina Rubinstein Alonso ’70
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Thanks for publishing the seven accounts of how it is to be Black in America. I was reminded of Michelle Obama’s chilling comment when her husband was running for his first term as president. A reporter asked if she was worried about his safety. Michelle replied, “The realities are, as a Black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station.”

Susan Brown
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

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I always look forward to receiving Brandeis Magazine, but I was especially impressed with your issue featuring Brandeisians detailing their life experiences as people of color.

I must laud your editors’ decision to include Bobbie Norman’s negative experience on the Brandeis campus. It is true journalism when stories are printed, warts and all, to let readers see personal encounters, however uncomfortable to read, through the eyes of the writer.

Shari Lessing
Gotham Chapter, Brandeis National Committee
New York City

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I was very pleased as well as saddened to read the articles on racism in Brandeis Magazine. Pleased because young people are speaking out and telling their stories. Saddened because it has already been 60 years since Harvey Pressman ’58 and Michael Walzer ’56 started the Emergency Public Integration Committee as students, and so little has changed since then. EPIC picketed the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square in support of Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who were protesting their exclusion from eating at the Woolworth’s lunch counter there. I was captain of the Cambridge picket line, whose members were mainly Harvard, MIT and Brandeis students and professors.

The stories in Brandeis Magazine also brought back memories of my trip down South to establish a liaison with activists there. There was excitement and terrible fear, which still evokes a visceral response whenever I think of that time.

David Koulack ’60
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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Many thanks for the Fall/Winter issue of the magazine — it is outstanding.

In 1948, when I was 8 years old, my parents took me from our home in suburban Chicago to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in hopes of “fixing” my moderately severe hearing loss (a treatment that turned out to be harmful in the long run). Seeing the signs on the restrooms and drinking fountains that said “Colored” and “Whites Only” was an aha experience. I somehow knew, without being told, that this was profoundly wrong and unfair.

At the time, my only experience of Black people was as servants and workers; my suburb and school were completely white. My prosperous Jewish parents, who were condescendingly “tolerant,” had no Black friends or colleagues. But, as David Nurenberg ’99 put so effectively in “The Anti-Racism Education Affluent White Students Need” [Brief Perspective], I was then and still am a “well-off white [person] access[ing my] own experiences of being treated unjustly, even in small ways.” Those “small ways” loomed large when giggling, whispering young girls didn’t want to play with someone who always sat in the front of the classroom and could only hear when directly and clearly spoken to.

Since adolescence, I have reached out to people who are “different” from me. I continue to be committed to racial and economic justice, and to peace.

Melodee Siegel Kornacker, PhD’65
Columbus, Ohio