The Rev. Karen Shepler said that she learned about racism through family, specifically, her father.
Karen Shepler was a college student before she really began to understand the meaning and effects of racism. It wasn’t a comfortable lesson to learn.
“When I went to college during the black power movement, that’s when I learned that I was to blame for everything bad that had ever happened to black people,” recalls the now Rev. Shepler of Waterville. “Initially I was angry ... until I realized it wasn’t personal. They were angry at white institutional racism.”
Ms. Shepler, 62, is one of several white community leaders in the Toledo area who’ve dedicated most of their lives to fighting racism and trying to educate other white people about the issue. She recently retired as the pastor of Monroe Street United Methodist Church.
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It’s not an easy position to be in — they often have to overcome initial mistrust from people of color whose experiences have taught them to be skeptical of white people’s intentions or ability to understand their problems and concerns.
White leaders like Ms. Shepler said they also learned quickly that their “anti-racist” stance can often alienate them from other white people, including family and friends.
“My white friends call me a radical, anti-racist,” agrees Conrad Pritscher, a retired Bowling Green State University professor who refers to himself as a “recovering racist.” A retired philosophy instructor, Mr. Pritscher, 81, created and taught some of Bowling Green State University’s first multicultural diversity courses that focused on racism, homophobia, and sexism.
Although his friends tolerate his views on racism, they don’t like to discuss it — which is at the root of the problem, Mr. Pritscher said. Many white people don’t think racism is a problem because it’s never been a problem for them.
“Racism is something white people don’t talk about,” he said. “They don’t think about it. They’re white and they don’t know it. It’s not part of their experience.”
Talking honestly about racism can also be painful, admits Ms. Shepler, who speaks from experience.
She spent the 1970s participating in “anti-racism” demonstrations and helping those living in poverty through her job with the YWCA in Toledo.
Mark Heller, managing attorney for Toledo's Advocates for Basic Legal Equality's Migrant Farmworker and Immigration Program, saw racism at work while attending Ball State University.
Secret at home
But it never occurred to Ms. Shepler why racism had never been discussed at home when she was growing up.
She learned why in 1981 when her father died. That’s when she discovered the family’s well-guarded secret — her father had been a longtime, active member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The newfound knowledge forced her to take a deeper look at herself, her family, and their prejudices, which suddenly seemed so obvious.
The memories came flooding back: Her father’s use of slang, racist nicknames when referring to people of color was so common as a young child that it was normal to her.
Her mother tried to defend her husband — he was born in 1902 and a “product of his time," “his prejudice was directed more at Catholics” than people of color, she said.
Ms. Shepler loved her mother, but realized that her father’s prejudice was wrong.
“After I learned that, I decided — it stops with me,” said Ms. Shepler, who serves as chairman of the Toledo Community Coalition’s Quality of Life Committee.
Ms. Shepler is on the planning committee for an anti-racism forum sponsored by the Toledo Community Coalition and The Blade. The event will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at the Woodward High School auditorium. The forum is open to the public.
Her first “life-changing moment” occurred when she was 16 and traveled to Haiti with a church missionary group.
“It was the first time that I was a minority, and I saw abject poverty that I had never seen before,” she said. “I had always thought of it before as charity.”
What she realized is that charity is actually an example of institutionalized racism because it keeps people dependent. Helping people become self-sufficient is better because it helps them become self-empowered.
It’s a message she’s preached and put into practice since becoming an ordained minister in 1983. She’s also well known for speaking passionately about the harm racism and white privilege causes in the community.
Racism is so deeply rooted, many white people aren’t even consciously aware of it, she said.
“Toledo is a very white privileged community,” said Ms. Shepler, referring to daily conditions or opportunities that many white people take for granted but which aren’t always for people of color.
Some examples she provided include: Most white people can go shopping without having to worry about being followed or harassed; they can rent or purchase housing in an area that they can afford and want to live; they can look at some media and see people of their race widely represented.
Toledo lawyer Mark Heller’s concern is that racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of America, it almost seems impossible to erase.
For evidence he points to the judicial system that he claims more often favors white people over people of color when it comes to issues involving racism and discrimination.
“The biggest problem about racism is white people always get to decide what racism is,” said Mr. Heller, managing attorney for Toledo’s Advocates for Basic Legal Equality’s Migrant Farmworker and Immigration Program. “When you go into a courtroom, there’s a 90 percent chance that the judge will be white and the jury will be all white.
“The system is set up so that whites get to decide if it was racist.”
An Indianapolis native, Mr. Heller grew up in a liberal household, but admits his community lacked diversity. There was one Hispanic male and one black female in his graduating class of 700 students, he recalls. He never interacted with either one.
It was different at Ball State University, where he was recruited to play football in fall of 1969. Several of his teammates were black, and he began to take notice of the world they lived in.
Racial tensions on campus and across America were still simmering in the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. There was also the controversy surrounding the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August where police kicked, clubbed, and gassed thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters near the convention hall, then arrested Black Panther Bobby Seale and seven other people and charged them with conspiracy to riot.
Blacks continued to fight for civil rights, and their frustrated opponents continued to dig in and resist the changes.
The first thing Mr. Heller noticed was that the new, inexperienced white coach made it clear that he personally didn’t like the black players on the team. The coach quickly removed one of the black stars on the team, he said.
Later that school year, a larger controversy erupted when only two black players were selected for the university’s basketball team and the coach would not allow those two to play at the same time, Mr. Heller said.
Black students on campus, including members of the football team, protested. Mr. Heller wrote a scathing letter to the school newspaper criticizing the athletic teams’ policies.
Mr. Heller said the basketball and football coaches met with him and demanded to know what and how he knew about their recruiting practices. When the football coach asked if he wanted to continue playing football, Mr. Heller took that as a not-so-veiled threat and quit the team.
“That’s when I first started thinking about race and trying to figure out racism,” Mr. Heller said.
Mr. Heller graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a double minor in African-American studies and history in 1972.
His decision to become a lawyer and dedicate his life championing for the civil rights of people of color occurred while he was finishing up college.
He volunteered as a tennis instructor for a group of black youths at a nearby country club when he realized, “These folks don’t need a tennis instructor, they need an attorney.”
In 1977 he earned a Juris Doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis. After graduation he moved to El Paso and began specializing in immigration legal work.
“I knew I wanted to work for working people,” Mr. Heller said. “Most of my career has been spent working for immigrants and farmworkers.”
‘Unlearn racist ways’
In his upcoming book, Skin Color: The Shame of Silence, Mr. Pritscher writes that white people must “unlearn racist ways of being,” if racism is ever going to be eliminated. The process is painful, because like an alcohol, the first step is admitting that you have a problem, he said.
Mr. Pritscher’s latest book is scheduled for release in January. He has published numerous books about racism and diversity through the years.
“Racism today is so subtle and ingrained that it is frequently unnoticed, particularly by white people,” Mr. Pritscher writes in his upcoming book. “This does not mean white people are bad. It means the way we have taught our young has not changed in over a century. We, our parents, and grandparents often unconsciously hold that which prevents us from noticeably reducing racism.”
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