The Challenges of Writing About Race

I get my ideas from stories from a variety of sources. And when I follow a lead, I never know where it will take me.

In June, I was reading the notes of a group that meets twice a month in Dexter, Michigan to discuss a range of issues affecting the community. These are usually fairly typical and ordinary matters, like road construction and local political campaigns. But in this most recent missive, buried amidst a summary of discussions about door to door solicitors, siren tests and programs for the elderly was mention of an African American, Ed Francis, who wanted time to get something off his chest: intimidation that he feels as one of the few people of color living in Dexter. After he spoke, others recounted incidences of racism that they observed. The email was written in a matter of fact tone, but I became curious whether racism is more inclined to thrive in Dexter as well as the surrounding communities of Chelsea and Saline, where fewer than one percent of residents are black. I had no idea if the racist incidents were pervasive beyond those reported at the Dexter Forum gathering. I was nervous about investigating this topic and it triggered a defensive, angry response among some of those I contacted to interview. Many were concerned that I had a preconceived notion that the areas were racist — which wasn’t true. It would have been easy to shelve the idea and not pursue this, but I had the sense that something was happening that needed to be uncovered.

My reporting led to this article¬†and the sad realization that blacks in these communities often experience discrimination. I was fortunate that many people — both black and white — were eager to speak with me. After conducting interviews with several people of color, I was surprised and sad to learn that Ed Francis was hardly alone in enduring discrimination as a minority in one of these small towns. Much of this is a result of ignorance — a lack of understanding when you’re surrounded primarily by those who look just like you. The community’s leaders, worried about the impact that lack of diversity can have, are working hard to combat the perception that they’re not welcoming. And I included many initiatives that they’re trying to implement to attract a more diverse population. But it’s not an easy problem to solve.

What I found is that people rarely have the courage to undertake the conversation that Ed Francis started. Worried about treading on sensitive territory, we are often afraid to talk about race in situations that directly affect us. I appreciated that my editor allowed me the length to explore this issue in depth, exploring many facets of what makes a community remain primarily white and the repercussions of that situation. I hope it becomes the springboard for many more conversations that lead to tolerance, acceptance and a more inclusive atmosphere in towns surrounding Ann Arbor, Michigan.