FORT WAYNE — Naomi Tutu has heard her fair share of frightening stories about racism.
But the most frightening stories she has heard are two fairly common conversations between people of color and whites – people who say they “don’t notice the difference” between themselves and others, or those who wish they could have a “child’s view” of race.
Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the fourth speaker Thursday night in this year’s Omnibus Lecture Series at IPFW’s Rhinehart Music Center.
Tutu explained that people who claim they fail to notice differences are actually insulting people of color.
“What I hear when someone says they ‘don’t think of me as black’ is that in order to accept me, to have a relationship with me, to communicate with me, they had to choose to ignore my blackness,” she told an audience of about 850.
And although many children have impeccable, and sometimes embarrassing, timing when it comes to addressing differences among people, that’s not the way to approach the topic either, Tutu said.
“But what we can take from these children is their ability to notice and their queries about racism,” she said. “We can start by asking the questions we’ve been told not to ask.”
People’s discomfort with raising the issue of race and their choice to ignore it doesn’t help communities correct racism, she said. In fact, it does the opposite.
Instead, people of all races should make an effort to admit their biases and confront their prejudices by understanding differences exist but do not define a people, she said.
Tutu said she has had many conversations about race and racism over the years, but few affected her more than a man who stood up after she gave a lecture to ask a question.
As the man approached the microphone, Tutu said she thought to herself, “What did I do to deserve an angry white man?”
As he began to speak, he was indeed angry, she said, but not for the reasons she’d expected. The man was upset that she was speaking to a crowd at a well-respected university that was inaccessible to those who needed most to hear her story.
Tutu and the man went back and forth in conversation until the moderator asked him to allow someone else to take a turn. Days later, their conversation continued and eventually that man became one of her closest friends, Tutu said.
Had she allowed the message in her head that day to continue to play, she would have missed out on one of the greatest men she has ever known, Tutu said.
“We have to learn to shut off that tape, ignore those messages of racism,” she said.
And the first step, she said, is a conversation.
“I ask of you to have the courage to be part of these most difficult conversations,” Tutu said, in closing. “Because for us, it is a most glorious opportunity.”