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Washtenaw United: Exploring and understanding structural racism

La'Ron Williams
Washtenaw Faces Race
La'Ron Williams


La’Ron Williams conducts workshops with schools, business organizations, and non-profits on increasing their awareness of the systemic/impersonal and unconscious/personal obstacles that prevent them from achieving diverse, inclusive communities. His workshops are always informative, entertaining, and filled with opportunities for individual growth and organizational development. La’Ron is well known for his pronounced commitment to justice and peacemaking – a commitment made concrete through his multi-year involvement on the Steering Committee of the Ann Arbor based Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. La’Ron is also a founding member of “Washtenaw Faces Race,” an all-volunteer, inter-racial, interdisciplinary group that consciously and consistently works to dismantle racial hierarchy and promote racial equity in local institutions within Washtenaw County.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and through the rest of the month on Washtenaw United, we're going to explore racism and issues of equity in Washtenaw County. I'm David Fair, and, starting today, the United Way of Washtenaw County is offering up its 21-Day Equity Challenge. It is a personalized way to explore implicit bias and get a better understanding of how our own life experiences contribute to issues of structural and societal racism. If you'd like to participate, visit their website at U-W Washtenaw dot org or ours at WEMU dot org, and you'll find the link to sign up and personalize your challenge. Today, we're going to try and get a better understanding of structural racism with our guest. La'Ron Williams is a professional storyteller and racial justice educator. He's a founding member of Washtenaw Faces Race and has spent years as part of the steering committee of the Ann Arbor-based Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. La'Ron, thank you so much for making time for us today.

La'Ron Williams: Thank you for inviting me. Happy to be here.

David Fair: When I say the words "implicit bias," La'Ron, what exactly does that mean to you?

La'Ron Williams: Well, I think about the one of the categories in which racism plays out and how we've come to identify that there can be--let's call them--prejudices that people hold, but that they're not aware of. And the terminology that we use now to describe those is implicit bias. So, you can have attitudes and beliefs and thoughts about groups of people without your own conscious awareness of those things. So, I always try to make the point that implicit bias exists on one level. So, it exists on a personal level or sometimes I will say intra--that is within yourself--intrapersonal level that you hold these biases. But there are other levels. There's also the interpersonal level, or I also use the term "relational level," in which we interact with other people, and our implicit biases inform how we behave in interaction with other people. You could also call that level the level on which discrimination takes place.

David Fair: But does that individual and implicit bias...doesn't that create the systemic bias that is so pervasive?

La'Ron Williams: It's a part of that. It's a part of that. So, all of these levels on which racism plays out feed into each other, and it's like this constant interactive feedback loop. There's no separation between these different levels, but for purposes of understanding them, I always break them down into into four different levels. So, there's the personal level, as we were talking about the relational level or interpersonal level. There's also a cultural level and an institutional level on which they play out. So, I want people to understand that there's a difference between those first three levels--the personal, relational and cultural and the institutional level--because the way that we are told by our society that racism exists is only on those first three levels: that it's personal, it's interpersonal, and it's cultural. And those are the three levels that make the news a lot. When you get somebody like Dylann Roof. When you get somebody like Dylann Roof, it draws a ton of media attention. You know, when he commits an overt, obvious act of racism, personal racism, that gets a ton of media attention. But our attention is not drawn to the thousands of ways every single day that racism and racial bias is built into our institutions, so that they have a much stronger effect on how we behave. So, they reinforce each other. That distinction, I think, is important.

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with racial justice educator and storyteller La'Ron Williams continues on 89 one WEMU. And, with your permission, La'Ron, I want to move this to an even more personal level, as I'm sure it informs the work you do today. The first 14 years of your life were spent in the legal era of Jim Crow segregation. How did you internalize that sense of being an outsider while living in the country you were born?

La'Ron Williams: You know, those 14 years of living with legal Jim Crow segregation gave me experiences that when blended with the--let's call them--invisible or institutional structures that already existed made me really aware of the fact that I was an outsider in our society. So, I was very aware of my racial background before anybody explained or told me anything about it. I can remember when I was just a little boy and I saw the image of Emmett Till in Jet magazine and the feelings that I had around seeing that image, because somehow without anybody saying you're like him or you're vulnerable like him, I sensed that I was like that, that my parents couldn't protect me from something like that happening. I was born and raised in Flint, but I took trips to Georgia, where my father is from, and I could see firsthand the way society was broken down. You know, that Black people had to sit in the balcony at the movie theate,r and we had to drink from the colored drinking fountain, and all those things were very clear to me. And as I moved through life, I blended those personal experiences with reading and the study that I did. And I came to realize that those structural pieces, even after Jim Crow was made illegal on the books, that many of those structural pieces were still in place.

David Fair: I'm glad you bring it up because the overt racism of the day then, while Jim Crow was segregation was legal, it certainly is responsible for the fact you never met your grandfather. Innocent Black men and women are still being killed today, sometimes at the hands of law enforcement officers. Can the murders that brought to life the Black Lives Matter movement equate to what happened to your mother's father?

La'Ron Williams: I don't know if equate would be a good word, but they certainly stem from similar circumstances and similar thoughts and ideas. So, you're alluding to the fact that my mother's father was a lynching victim in the 1930s, and that his family was powerless to do anything about his murder. It was the result of a declaration that he made that he wanted to attend college. And there was reaction among a group of white men. This was in the state of Mississippi that he was stepping beyond his bounds. And so, he was he was killed for that. And my mother didn't share that story with me til I was in my fifties.

David Fair: Is that right?

La'Ron Williams: Yeah. And that was over 20 years ago.

David Fair: What was her reason for withholding that from you?

La'Ron Williams: She thought that she was protecting her kids. She thought that our not knowing it would make it easier for us to get by day-to-day. That's not uncommon. She probably didn't know how to process the feelings of grief and didn't want to convey that to u,s so that we would also have to live with those feelings. I understand that as an act of love, but I also think it was a mistake because it didn't prepare us for the ways that my grandfather's death showed up in our family day to day to day to day to day. And it didn't prepare us to understand certain behaviors that my mother exhibited. So, it was funny. As soon as she explained to me that my grandfather was a lynching victim, then lots of things made sense. You know, the way that she treated me in regard to going away to school, but the fact that, at the same time, she encouraged us, all her kids, to go to college. Then, as soon as we were of college age, she panicked in each case and tried to pull us back. So, the relationship between what happened to my grandfather and what is happening with policing is that, in each case, there was somebody who felt that they needed to defend the status quo, that those men who killed my grandfather believed that he represented an inferior human being and that they needed to police the bounds of their social status. And the same thing is true with police, whether they think of themselves as good or bad people. Their job is really to protect the status quo. And that in order to really...if we really want to see change in the way that the police interact with the public, we have to help the police to understand that their role is not a neutral role, but that they are defenders of an existing status quo.

David Fair: And I want to get into that methodology that you were starting to refer to. This is 89 one WEMU. We're talking with storyteller and racial justice educator La'Ron Williams on Washtenaw United. With all of your lived experiences, with all of the experience you've learned about that have been shared with you, it comes with some sadness, with grief, righteous anger, a wide array of emotions. How have you used those to find your voice, philosophy, and methodology of working against racism?

La'Ron Williams: So, I'll give you another incident from my life. And also, as you just said, another very emotional and tragic time. When I was seven years old, I was slapped in the face. So, let me preface this by saying that I went to a relatively integrated--maybe 75% Black and 25% white--elementary school. And the school underwent some changes later on. But, at the time that I was seven years old, it was probably 75, 25. And one da,y I was leaving the school a little bit late because I had stayed behind to help the teacher with something. I don't remember. And there was a white boy who was 11 years old. I'm seven. He's 11. And I didn't know who he was. And he slapped me in the face and called me a Black and the N-word. Although, of course, he didn't say N-word. He said the word. And, years later, when I was 16 years, and I didn't see that boy in the intervening years, but when I was six years old, I was on the bus on the way to school, and I saw him walking down the street. And my first impulse was to jump off the bus, run across the street, and slap him in the face as hard as I could. That was the impulse. But my life experiences had also taught me that doing that kind of thing, if I acted out in rage or revenge, it just perpetuated a cycle. It would perpetuate a cycle. And I made the decision then that instead of hitting him, I would try to turn that experience into something that could be useful and constructive--how to turn my rage into something constructive. So, years later, I created a story. The story is called "Elm Park 1955," and it's about an hour-long story, and it describes the social conditions under which I lived and under which that boy lived at a time when the community around us was in a changing space. And that's a term that they used when a community was changing from white to Black, which was also a common thing in the cities in those days. So, I created a story that helped to explain the dynamics and why this boy might have been angry enough without knowing me to slap me in the face and what was happening with the patterns of factory workers working in Flint and so on. So, the point that I'm making is that I learned to see a constructive way and to take that philosophy of turning the most painful parts of our lives around race into something constructive.

David Fair: So now, as you go out into the community, you tell your stories, you work with institutions, organizations and governmental units and people to get to a place of a more rich and diverse equity in our community. Where do you find the most hope?

La'Ron Williams: Oh, gosh. Well, it's kind of difficult to limit that to one thing. Usually, what I do when I am asked that question--and I'm often asked that question--is I refer to the history that I come out of. You know, I'm the son of factory working parents--both of my parents worked in factories--and the grandson of sharecroppers. And my father's father, not my mother's father, but my father's father never learned to read or write anything. He couldn't even tell you what the letter A was. And yet, he raised eight children, largely on his own, because his wife died early on. He persevered through those difficult times. And I link his capability to persevere with the history of those people who had been brought over here, pressed into slavery, forced to work throughout the hundreds of years that slavery existed. And yet, they never gave up. They survived on the belief of who they could be in the future, right? They survived by faith. And it's that strong faith--the belief in something that runs counter to the evidence around you. That kind of faith that keeps me going. That's the thing I put my hope into. But that doesn't say that there aren't signs of being hopeful. I see young people all the time who reflect many of the positive lessons that people of my generation were trying to impart to them. And I'm hopeful because of the things they do. I just participated in a week of Kwanzaa festivities, and a lot of those young people inspire me to go on. When I saw Amanda Gorman reading her poem--reciting her poem--at the inauguration--Joe Biden's inauguration--a couple of years ago, I felt this is what we struggled for. This young person's presence is what we struggle to achieve. And here she is. And there's just lots and lots and lots of signs of hope. And I don't want to limit this only to expressions of hope on the part of Black people. I see lots and lots and lots of people from across the board who are learning more and working together to create a society that's inclusive and diverse and democratic. All those things give me hope.

David Fair: If you could ask each person who was hearing your voice today to consider one thing through the rest of the day and on into the future, what would that be?

La'Ron Williams: That it's possible. You know, so, I guess a lot of what I just was saying is a call for people to get out there. One of the biggest regrets I have when I try to do workshops is that there's no gauge. We have no gauge--no way--to look at a person and know how much they do or don't know about our racialized history. And so, I'm always having to reinvent the wheel. I never know, you know, who I'm looking at. But the information is there. The information is out there. Tons and tons of literature and that the 21-Day Equity Challenge is a great way for people to become involved and to learn things that they aren't getting from mainstream sources. So, the one thing I would say is get involved in the challenge. Get involved in learning about our history and learning about how it has shaped the society we currently live in.

David Fair: I would like to thank you for your time and for sharing your insights today, La'Ron.

La'Ron Williams: As I said, thank you for inviting me. I love these chances.

David Fair: That is racial justice educator and storyteller La'Ron Williams. He is a founding member of Washtenaw Faces Race, and he's been our guest on Washtenaw United. Our conversations on structural racism coincides with today's start of the United Way of Washtenaw County's 21-Day Equity Challenge. It is available to any and all who wish to participate. For more information or to sign up, visit our web page at WEMU dot org for the direct links. I'm David Fair, and I invite you to join us for Washtenaw United next Monday as our exploration of racism and the search for equity continues. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Washtenaw Faces Race (WFR)


This interview coincides with United Way of Washtenaw County’s 21-Day Equity Challenge: 2023 Edition, which runs from January 9th-29th. On January 9th, the topic for the day focuses on the different levels of racism: Internalized, Interpersonal, Institutional, and Structural.

Registration is open and free to those who want to participate at: https://www.uwwashtenaw.org/21-day-equity-challenge

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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