AUBURN — Tears, music and a passionate, candid discussion of race filled Osteria Salina on Monday night as five panelists spoke to a diverse crowd of about 35 to celebrate the life and discuss how to continue the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“This is not an entertainment event ... this is a communication event,” said Sean McLeod, founder of Reaching for Higher Ground Consulting and President and CEO of the New York Institute of Dance and Education, opening the conversation.
Over the next two hours, the panelists discussed their experiences of being seen as “others” by whites as they grew up in New York, and how to make progress toward equality in communities like Auburn.
Rhoda Overstreet-Wilson, an adjunct professor at Cayuga Community College, said it was both beautiful and disheartening that all of the panelists took different paths but had similar experiences growing up around the state.
"The reason it’s sad is because we’re all different — different families, different family makeup, different set of rules and norms in the family — but none of us were not allowed to experience those things that all minorities in this country, in this state, in this county, in this city, experience,” she said. “In my journeys, in my conversations with folks, black and white, and their experience with minorities, we all have that same thread of experience and I want to get to a place in this country where that is not so.”
Overstreet-Wilson, who said she walked the stage with only five other minority students when she graduated from Auburn High School, spoke of her feeling of being “weaponized” by white culture to act the way whites deem appropriate and not in a way that she could truly express herself and her culture.
Successful black men and women, she said, are “told to be confident, to speak with decision, to be articulate, to go in and own the room.” But, she said, “the moment you do it better than the people who hired you, they then embark on this campaign to delegitimize you and what you accomplished.”
Eli Hernandez, president of the Auburn/Cayuga National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, echoed that sentiment.
“Your experience, our experience of being called the n-word or spic or whatever the case may be, we’re used to that,” he said. “But it’s when they weaponize you and destroy you, that’s even more detrimental. And if you’re not strong, it can destroy you.
“And that’s the struggle that we have here in Auburn. It’s real. I continue to say we have so much work to do.”
Devon McLeod, a senior at New York University where she is a member of the Stern Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force, said she first felt like an “other” when she was placed on the accelerated track in middle school in the Auburn school district and realized she was the only person of color in the classroom.
“That settled on me very heavily, as heavy as it can feel when you’re 11, and felt heavier,” she said as the years progressed. “I didn’t understand why that was a problem at the time, I just saw that that had happened.”
The panelists also discussed colorism and the varying degrees of racism directed toward each of them based on their skin color.
“My experience of being a light-skinned brother,” Hernandez said, means “I’m still able to get away with more than you can, Sean.”
The audience paid close attention to the speakers as they ate dinner and frequently applauded emotional stories from the panelists and frank questions from the audience.
Dr. Emad Rahim, author and associate professor at Bellevue University, said that when he was younger, he didn’t want to continue detailing his ethnicity to curious and at times insensitive people.
"I stopped embracing who I was, being this Cambodian-American, and just accepted what people thought," he said. "It wasn't until I was in my 40s, being married to an African-American woman and having biracial children that I realized how important it is to celebrate your identity."