It’s Black History Month and so I’ve found myself reflecting and reading more about Black History as posts have popped up more often in my social media feeds. It got me thinking about blackness at Unirondack and how, honestly, our recognition (or lack thereof) of our Black History hasn’t always been perfect. Nor has our attempts to raise up those in our history who are black. I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to tell the story of one of those instances that took place not long ago, something I think makes for a good learning opportunity for white folks in our community and beyond.
In 2014, Unirondack set out to renovate and significantly add to one of our buildings. In the process, the idea was hatched to name the building after one of our previous staffers, a woman of color, by the name of Evelyn Anderson. She was a dedicated, well-loved staff member and is likely the longest serving staff member in camp’s history. In the end, it was agreed to name the building after her, and the Evelyn Anderson House was coined. However, the sign for the building, and the colloquial name for the building became “Evelyn.” And that is just how the building was known from thereon – Evelyn.
(Evelyn Anderson in the Unirondack kitchen circa late ’70s)
It wasn’t until some time later that a board member, a black woman named Viola Abbitt, raised the concern that in doing so, Unirondack may have fallen into a common pattern of disrespect to black people and people of color; that is, using their first name instead of their full or last name. Additionally, it’s uncommon in black culture to refer to elders using a first name. To further demonstrate Unirondack’s blindspot on the issue, it was the only building on camp that was named after someone that used a first name.
I wish I could say this feedback was universally accepted at first, it wasn’t. White fragility reared its ugly head and we came up with side-stepping excuses for our decision that avoided confronting the real issue at hand. In the words of Viola Abbitt, we “exhibit(ed) characteristics of the white supremacist culture that is the water in which we are all swimming.” We may not be racist in the work we do overall or as a core principle of our organization, but in handling that situation, we took a racist approach to a situation and a further ignorant reaction to being called out on it.
(Evelyn Anderson House, shortly after completion and before the dedication/sign)
From this, however, a conversation was started, one that we learned a lot from. White supremacy operates in subtle ways and while our culture may not have the same level of overt racism, the impact it has on people is as important as ever. In the end, the name of the building was formally changed, and it is now known as Anderson and we correct people when the old name is still occasionally used. But we wanted to let people know why the change was made, and specifically, name the fact that it was not white people on camp’s staff or board who realized the error in our ways. While, it should never be the responsibility or burden of the people of color in an organization to fix racism and racial bias of the organization, it does happen and it’s important to recognize it.
If you’re looking for more information on this issue I’ve included a few links that have reminded me of what Unirondack went through in some ways. Realistically, situations like ours have been playing out in this country for decades and there are countless other ways that white privilege and white supremacist norms rear their ugly heads in places that are obvious to black folks and people of color, but can be invisible to white people who are afraid to look for it. Thanks for taking the time to read and learn a little about black history as it relates to Unirondack. And thank you to Viola Abbitt both for her role in this situation and for helping me write out some of this reflection to share with you today. She also provided some of the following links.