Guest speaker candid about race issues

IUS Horizon

Denise Travis
Denise Travis

Race, ethnicity and politics were among the issues discussed by Denise Travis, professor of social work at IU Northwest, in the Hoosier Room East at IU Southeast on Friday, Oct. 17.

About 40 academics and other interested individuals came to hear Travis’ response to Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race and politics in America.

“Discussing race is sometimes very uncomfortable for people,” Travis said.

She talked about her own ethnic background and heritage.

“My father was African-American while my mother was French Canadian,” Travis said. “My father left Mississippi in 1937 to relocate in Chicago.”

Travis showed the audience slides of her family, including a photo of her grandfather, Frank Travis, who was born in 1864 when slavery still existed.

She pointed out the negative reactions Americans had to the brief quotes of Obama’s former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when he said, “God damn America,” in one of his sermons.

“Unfortunately, the rest of his sermon was not quoted,” Travis said. “Especially the part where he criticized the American government for not treating all its people as human citizens.”

She contrasted Wright’s sermon with the statements made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Falwell blamed the 9/11 attacks on the ACLU, abortionists, People for the American Way and other liberal groups,” Travis said. “Pat Robertson agreed with him.”

Travis said Obama’s Philadelphia speech was made to counter some of the ideas of his former pastor.

“Obama said Americans have to look beyond race to work through the problems we face,” she said. “He also talked about the immigrant experience in America.”

Travis also talked about some of the problems her family has experienced because of race and ethnicity.

“Because of our mixed heritage, my brothers look more Middle Eastern than African-American,” she said. “Shortly after 9/11, one of my brothers was actually stopped by a stewardess on an airplane while looking for the restroom because of the way he looked.”

Travis mentioned her mother’s French heritage, and only once in her lifetime has she been asked if she was French.

“On another occasion, I was asked by someone at a gas station if I was from India,” Travis said.  “Having a little fun with this person, I said ‘Yes, from Gary.’”

Travis said talking about ethnicity among students can be problematic.

“While most white students can name the country of their family’s origin, black students can only name a continent, Africa,” she said.

Travis mentioned a slave holder, William Lynch, who made a statement in 1712 about stopping slaves from running away. Lynch encouraged using fear, distrust and envy to keep them divided and more docile.

“We have seen this method used throughout American history to keep people divided against their better interest,” Travis said. “The Naturalization Act and the Alien and Sedition Act were created specifically for non-English immigrants.”

Travis talked about the ridicule ethnic groups often use against each other as part of her background as a social worker.

“Some people look at their heritage with some negativity,” Travis said. “I had one student who said her ethnic background was Irish and Italian, so that must mean being a drunk and a gangster.”

Travis quizzed some of the audience on their ethnic heritage and got a variety of responses. She brought up a recent campaign scene on the news, about a woman at a McCain rally who said she wouldn’t vote for Obama because she thinks he is Arab.

“While Sen. McCain assured the woman that Obama was a decent family man, he never did say anything about what difference would it make if Obama was of Arab heritage,” Travis said. “Again, fear, distrust and envy avoid the real issues.”

Travis quoted a speech by the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, during which he said, “Those that live with us are our brothers. The bond of a common goal can teach us something to bind up the wounds among us.”

In closing Travis urged the audience to move beyond Obama’s call of “Yes We Can” to “Yes We Must.”

Members of the audience said they were moved by Travis’ presentation.

“I thought it was very appropriate and timely,” Pete Galvin, associate professor of geography, said.

“She did a great job comparing Obama’s background to her own heritage,” Earl Wysong, professor of sociology at IU Kokomo, said.

Staff Writer