The words above have been used to describe individuals and a community that I am very proud of and that I love. These words could not be farther from the truth. For the past 20 months, I have been involved with the Westerly Anti-Racism Coalition, local citizens committed to making Westerly a more equitable and just place. Westerly ARC recognizes that many things can be true at the same time, our town is a beautiful place with wonderful people and it’s not immune to the impact of racism and bias.
ARC achieved a lot last year, and the group is looking forward to continuing to have a positive impact in 2023. You can learn much more about Westerly ARC on their website, but here I’d like to address why I continue to be involved in this organization.
“The is no racism in Westerly”
Watching the local candidate forum for Town Council in 2020, I was stunned to hear these words from not one, but several of the candidates who were running for office. In fact, of the nine candidates, six denied that there was any systemic racism in Westerly. As evidence, some stated it was a “big city problem” and that “everyone gets along” in Westerly. One member called systemic racism “a great word that CNN likes to use.” Another claimed that since she hadn’t seen it or heard of it, it must not exist here.
Two of the nine candidates initially stated that racism does exist here, like everywhere else, but spent the rest of their response explaining how it is not a major issue since people in Westerly treat each other nicely and we have no racism in our police force.
Just one candidate acknowledged that as an all-white group, “we’re not the side that gets the racism, unless we walk in their shoes, we don’t know what happens to them.”
Looking back on this recorded forum, I realize that the most upsetting part for me was that these candidates would rather remain committed to colorblindness to protect their comfort, rather than make even the smallest bit of space to pause and reflect on the realities facing our world today. These same candidates went on to be elected to serve on the Town Council.
Responding to a question about systemic racism by saying Westerly is a “nice community” with an “excellent police force” where many people have “kind hearts” and volunteer demonstrates how, even after four months of protests and a nationwide racial reckoning, these candidates chose to remain ignorant on the topic. They chose to believe that “nice” people cannot be racist or that “good police” means that there are no systems in place that value white bodies over others.
One of the goals of Westerly ARC is to educate. Those who show up for weekly gatherings on the post office steps come to learn from guest speakers and from each other. Sundays are a combination of a celebration of culture and a time to be in active conversation about some of the most difficult aspects of our lives today. Those who subscribe to the ARC newsletter also learn from the resources that are shared. This is one reason I continue to be involved, to see the joy in other cultures I do not have a relationship to and to increase my understanding of racism, how it impacts my community, so I can do something about it.
What We Owe the Future
You don’t have to look very far to witness the impact of racism and bias on today’s children. When I hear an eight-year-old Black girl from Westerly say she wishes she was white or five-year-old boy shout, “I don’t want to die” because a police car drove by, I see the impact that racism has on our future. If children today are picking up messages of white supremacy from society, then we can do better. We are not yet living in a world where the color of one’s skin does not play a role in the health, education, and welfare of our children.
“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963)
Progress towards justice does not happen overnight. Racism will not end in my lifetime, so why bother? I protest because of those who came before me. The struggle for justice has endured for centuries, whether it was for civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, equality for women, or any of the numerous causes to advance the promise made in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
And many of us have come to understand that the gains of the past are not guaranteed for us or for future generations. Rights that others fought so hard for have been lost or are being chipped away little by little. For my grandchildren, I will continue to educate myself and act towards social justice.
I owe it to past generations who sacrificed so much, and to future generations whose freedoms and very lives are at stake, to continue the fight for justice. And I am inspired by the change that is already happening as a result of the efforts of many in my small town.
The thing is, despite the negative comments in the image above, Westerly is full of nice people. It is full of nice people who understand that being nice doesn’t end racism. People who can grasp the concept that good police can be operating in a system that is racist. People who know that racism doesn’t need to be seen or personally experienced to exist.
A large part of why I continue to protest is because I feel part of a larger community of people who want to learn, grow, change, and create a better Westerly for everyone. ARC is an accepting and diverse community of neighbors.
On the steps of the post office, I have met people who are gay, straight, young, old, white, Black, Asian, indigenous, Hispanic, able-bodied, disabled, religious, atheist, and so much more. I have had great conversations with doctors, retirees, musicians, poets, teachers, artists, business owners, social workers, hair stylists, clerks, politicians, clergy, grandmothers, great grandmothers, and a brilliant man who lives off of other people’s trash while educating us on protecting the environment. I have learned a great deal from people in addiction recovery as well as from those who struggle with mental health issues.
I have listened to the stories of those who continue to experience both personal and systemic racism in our nice town.
“Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)
This cross section of Westerly that I have encountered on the post office steps gives me hope for a better Westerly. Yes, there are the critics who post lies and insults on social media, and there are the cowards who drive by on Sundays and shout the n-word or make obscene gestures from their cars. And there are those who, despite all of the evidence, continue to insist that racism is not a problem here and that talking about it is just being divisive.
But for every one of these people, there are many more who shout words of encouragement or honk their horns in support of what we are doing. Spend one hour with this community on the steps of the post office and you can only leave with renewed hope and love for our beautiful town and its people.
What about you? Can you imagine an even more beautiful and welcoming world for all? What will you do to fight for it?
February 5, 2023 at 07:39
Eloquently said, Tim ~ thank you!
February 6, 2023 at 19:35
Thanks for reading, Pam!
February 5, 2023 at 18:33
Thank you for the passion and the inspiration.
February 6, 2023 at 19:36
Great to hear from you, Susanne!
February 5, 2023 at 22:05
So beautifully expressed, Tim. I feel very lucky to know you and join with you and others in striving to be an anti-racist.
February 6, 2023 at 19:36
February 6, 2023 at 09:23
Tim, this post is so thoughtfully and beautifully written with all the reasons why we too protest by your side for a more beautiful town. You are everything good about Westerly. ❤️
February 6, 2023 at 19:37
Thanks, Anne. So grateful for the ARC community.
February 6, 2023 at 10:39
Proud to know you and what you stand for, I am learning.
February 6, 2023 at 19:37
February 11, 2023 at 07:54
You are not just a gifted writer but a gifted human being! I am so lucky to call you friend! I love you my friend
February 14, 2023 at 10:01