This undated photo shows members of the Rorem family. (Courtesy Photo / Laura and Larry Rorem)

This undated photo shows members of the Rorem family. (Courtesy Photo / Laura and Larry Rorem)

Opinion: Our experiences with both racism and white privilege

  • Friday, July 31, 2020 11:03am
  • Opinion

Suburban Detroit 1982: “Mom, my History teacher is prejudice and giving me C’s instead of A’s. He treats Black kids differently than white kids — like we’re bad.” Our 12 year-olds words flabbergasted us. We had sheltered him from discrimination and naively thought this couldn’t happen to our gifted “A” student.

During conferences we confronted the principal and rejected his response that “Racism isn’t allowed in this school.” The teacher was next.

Adjacent to our son’s name, we wrote “Rev. Larry and Laura Rorem.” Larry seldom used his title, but our son’s dignity was at stake. Upon seeing Larry was a pastor, and we were white, the teacher hesitantly put his pointer finger on his head, twirled his finger and said, “You mean that kid with the curly hair?” Politely firm, we confronted him about discriminating against our son. He promised us a behavior change and gave him an “A.”

Tragically, his behavior toward other Black students didn’t change. This was a turning point in our understanding of racism. We realized our son benefitted from our “whiteness” but Black parents and students lacked that privilege. Sadly, the same reality exists in Juneau for families of color.

We have white privilege, but lacked Black wisdom: the wisdom needed to teach our children how to protect themselves from racial profiling. White privilege protected them when young, but as they aged, our white influence diminished. Racial profiling became a tragic reality.

Fifty-four years ago, we began as a white family of two, blossoming into a rainbow family of color: four children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; a beautiful combination of races and ethnicities. We adopted three who are half Black, Chippewa, Yupik and white, and birthed one. All but two of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are Black, with a blending of Chippewa, Yupik, Inupiat, Tlingit, Athabaskan, Aleut, Hispanic and white.

We first experienced racism upon announcing our intent to adopt interracially. Some were disgusted and threatened by the possibility of a Black family member, but the majority welcomed a child of color because “all are created in God’s image.” Once our adorable Black child arrived, racist hearts melted — but only for him. Over time, some blatant racist hearts and attitudes changed as they accepted and welcomed racial diversity.

We experience both blatant and subtle racism. Upon our 1990 arrival in Juneau, we were informed racism did’t exist. Yet our family experiences subtle racism, which is ambiguous discrimination disguised and concealed in the fabric of society through passive or evasive methods. It’s frequently delivered unconsciously and the offender is often unaware. We are keenly aware of how subtle racism affects people of color and impacts and marginalizes our children.

[Opinion: What is ‘white privilege?’]

We are well-known justice-seeking advocates for the most vulnerable, including our children and grandchildren born with fetal alcohol syndrom disorders and co-occurring disorders. We have been publicly silent about racism, but thanks to recent “My Turn” authors on white privilege we found our voice.

By sharing, we genuinely fear retaliation by the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems and all systems. The criminalization of people of color and people diagnosed with FASD/Autism/Mental Illness endangers lives. Our daughter died because of systemic racism and neglect of FASD in particular. How many more of our loved ones do we have to bury? Like Black and Native parents we live in constant fear of being told our children have been murdered at the hands of the police. We have a lifetime of documentation of these realities. We are exhausted and distraught as continually we; our family, people of color and people with brain based disabilities are patronized and told by the powerful that “we are not experiencing what we are experiencing.” We need proportional diversity in leadership and systems, and overt action, for true equality to exist.

[Opinion: Acknowledging an ‘invisible package of unearned assets’]

We have no regrets about our wonderful rainbow family, but deeply regret our children face racism that diminishes their lives. We are all people of worth who deserve to be celebrated with love, compassion, inclusivity, respect and universal equality.

Born and raised in Iowa, the Rorem’s studied at the University of Oslo Norway and graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1969. While Larry studied at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minn., Laura taught profoundly deaf preschoolers with FASD. Both have served on numerous Social Service Boards nationally, statewide and locally. Laura is a FASD Parent Navigator and on the JAMHI Board. Ordained in 1972, Larry served congregations in Brevig Mission, Alaska, Port Orford/Gold Beach, Ore., Westland, Mich., and retired from Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran, Juneau in 2007. They are passionate advocates for justice for the marginalized in society. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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