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Sam Oni’s speech inspires a future without discrimination

Mary Kathryn Wiley

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Says Oni, “I do not want to dwell too much on the negatives or the past.”

This is a pretty incredible statement, given Mr. Oni’s experiences. Mr. Oni’s college roommate, Dr. Don Baxter, tells humorous stories of their time living together, but he also has some more sobering words to share.

For example, he describes his cherished memory of meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was seventeen years old. He then tells us that the church in which he met King was a segregated “white” church; it had separate bathrooms and water fountains labeled either “white” or “colored”—a rather elaborate precaution, given that Baxter also tells us black people would not have been allowed inside the church’s sanctuary.

When it is his turn at the podium, Mr. Oni says to us: “We take so much for granted, don’t we?” He repeats himself a couple of times. It is well worth emphasizing. After all, today, I did not consider until the speakers began addressing racial issues that I was seated between a black woman around my age and a “non-white,” perhaps Hispanic, male around my age in Willingham.

Looking around me intentionally, I saw diversity: sure, a few white blonde girls like myself, but they were not the majority, at least where I was sitting.

There were black students, Hispanic students, Asian students, Indian students. Mr. Oni says I should not look for these differentiations. He tells us that we should hope—and strive—for a world in which it is never important to note the color of someone’s skin.

As an ironic illustration, Oni holds up brightly colored poster board for us.

“Is there anyone ‘white’ in this room?” he demands, pointing out to us the sheer silliness of those color designations “white,” “black,” even “brown” and “yellow,” when taken literally.

It is just like a little boy told me my first day back at Motivating Youth this year, while inspecting my skin to see if it was, indeed, “white”: “Miss Wiley, you look exactly like a peach!” So maybe “peach” is a more accurate color designation, but Mr. Oni is on to something. Why does “color” have to matter? Oni says it shouldn’t have to.

Sitting in the audience listening to Baxter and Oni, I found myself feeling a certain amount of pride that—in spite of the predominance of white males sitting onstage—at least two of our democratically elected Student Government representatives are, in fact, gay.

I’m proud of that fact. It makes me hope for a world in which we are not particularly concerned with someone’s skin color, “gender” or sexuality. Perhaps there will come a time when women and minorities will be equally represented in the political sphere.

Perhaps, even in the South, a future can be imagined in which political futures are possible for openly gay candidates. I’m hopeful, and I think Mr. Oni would want me to be. His message left me thinking about the possibility that in the end, what proves stronger than hostility, ignorance and hatred is forgiveness.

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No Responses to “Sam Oni’s speech inspires a future without discrimination”

  1. Matt Hickman on March 7th, 2011 6:50 am

    Does anyone else find this article mildly offensive?

    For the record, there is an openly gay member of the Georgia General Assembly and Georgia has the largest Black Caucus of any state in the Union. In addition, roughly a third of the General Assembly members are woman. While this is not enough to claim to have equal representation, your argument is flawed. Claiming the South is closed minded and racially divided, when in fact it is making significant gains for equality as shown in our democratically elected government system. Racism and sexism can be found anywhere. North, South, East, and West. Of Course racism, sexism, and homophobia are stereotypically associated with the South, which is based in some truth, but this stereotype shouldn’t be perpetuated, especially by the people who live below the Mason-Dixon.

    If you wanted to write an article about the absence of discrimination based on "skin color, gender, or sexuality" you shouldn’t have classified everyone in this article by their skin color, gender, or sexuality. It shows how far we have come, or better, how far we haven't come.

    Perhaps the most offensive sentence in this article is, "I was seated between a black woman around my age and a “non-white,” perhaps Hispanic, male around my age in Willingham" for the primary reason that you do not know if he is Hispanic, he could have been any number of different ethnic groups but you placed a label on him because he was not of your "peach" color. He could have very well have been Caucasian, you don’t know. Yet, you labeled him anyway, trying to find his ethnic fit, when you should have merely seen him as a person.

    You even point out your own hypocrisy. “There were black students, Hispanic students, Asian students, Indian students. Mr. Oni says I should not look for these differentiations.” But you did for an entire article.

    In an article aimed at explaining the blurring of racial boarders and skin tones, you made it very obvious you still notice race, even when the speaker urges that you shouldn't, and threw in people’s sexuality to boot.

  2. Mary Kathryn on March 7th, 2011 7:19 am

    Matt: thank you for your insightful comments. you're correct that I do still notice race, sexuality and gender, some of the time. that was actually the point of my article – I think we live in a society characterized by divides, a society that emphasizes whatever characteristics make a person "different."

    And yes, I'd stand by my suggestion that as a woman in the South, I deal with sexist attitudes – generally speaking – more often than if I lived, say, on the west coast. That's a generalization, though, and I certainly don't mean to imply that I wouldn't face sexism in other parts of the country, as well. The fact that we've made significant strides in the interest of civil rights doesn't mean we shouldn't address the problems that still DO exist – otherwise how can we fuel change?

    I'll admit I didn't expect to be labelled as racist simply because I looked around me and appreciated the diversity of Mercer's student body when the issue of race was raised by the speakers at the event. In your comments you suggest I should not have any consciousness of race, but then you berate me for not being sure of someone's racial background – but it's because I see people as people, not as characterized or determined by race, sexuality, or gender, that no, I can't immediately label every person I see by their racial background. I was simply trying to point out the great strides Mercer has made in terms of racial diversity.

  3. Matt Hickman on March 7th, 2011 8:46 am

    I DO NOT think you are a racist- that is a foolish jump to make. I think that you are like many who understand that race is still part of our daily lives.

    However, I did not see, as you pointed out in your response, that this article was intended to make Mercerians aware of the problems that still exist. I took it to mean that Sam Oni made great points and Mercer has come a long way since he was a student.

    The only part I was offended by was the way everyone was labeled, not for who they are as a person, but as an ethnic group or race. That was in direct opposition to Oni's speech.

    But now seeing your intention for the article, I can see how it was necessary, even if I do disagree with the way it was presented.

  4. Mary Kathryn on March 7th, 2011 8:49 am

    I can definitely see where you're coming from – thanks for your comments and sharing your thoughts, I appreciate it. I can definitely see how I should've made my ideas clearer in the article itself.

  5. Carl V. Lewis on March 7th, 2011 10:24 am

    As Mary-Kathryn has mentioned, the problem is that we will never live in a color-blind world, even though race is only a social construct. We will always see and recognize others for their skin colors, and to assert that we should somehow be color-blind is mere fantasy. The solution, then, comes not in trying to point out how we're all alike (as I think Oni tended to do), but rather in celebrating our differences.

    I personally felt like Oni's speech whitewashed persisting inequalities as a way to make people (especially whites) feel good about themselves for the progress that has been made. But even though we've made progress, we're still nowehere near living in a post-racial society, especially in the South.

    That's not to denigrate Oni or Baxter, but rather to point out my ambivalence about the overly-idealistic underpinning of the message conveyed by the Founders' Day speech in general. While race is fictive, racism is not.

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Sam Oni’s speech inspires a future without discrimination