Racism is not systemic, it is an individual choice

To the editor:

I am a white female who grew up in a very rural area in Pennsylvania. Ninety-nine percent of the population was white. The only time we ever came in contact with people of color was when the fresh air kids from New York would come by bus to spend two weeks with different families in the summer.

The kids at that time, including me thought that was cool to meet other kids who were different. We swam with them at the local pool, went to picnics that were held in their honor while they were there. I even befriended one girl as a pen pal for many years and even went up to where she lived in Harlem with my Aunt who was her sponsor.

There were many people who didn’t want this intermingling of race in our community with their children. It was “bad” for the kids, they said. We kids didn’t understand what all the negativity was about. They were kids just like us, but their hair and skin color and the way they talked was different. But they laughed and liked the same things we did.

We would hear things from some of the parents that they were all “bad” people, different from us whites. I did not understand this attitude as a kid.

Fast forward 20 years when I started working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg where many people of color lived and worked. Things were different to me then. I eventually moved to the Harrisburg area and life and the culture was so different.

I worked with and became friends with several black co-workers. But I did see the negative side of both whites and blacks as to how they reacted with each other. I saw racism on both sides, not just on one side. I experienced racism against me in my job when I had a woman of color who worked in my department accuse me of racism because I gave her a bad annual review for her poor performance on the job. I was called up by my department manager and was told that she complained to the union steward that I was being racist against her and that I needed to amend her review. I refused, and was told that if I didn’t change it I was out of a job. At that moment I was the one who felt that racism was against me on the flip side.

Shortly after that incident, there was a man who worked in my department that had previously had a mental breakdown at his prior position at the state. He was a very sweet man who basically handled the mail but because of his mental status could not handle much else. He was transferred to a lower paid position, but he was kept at his pay rate that he received at the prior position which was substantially higher than most of those in the department including me and I was the manager.

One day I again was called up by my manager and was told that “Bill” was not living up to expectations and after a fiscal review of the department, a determination was made that Bill needed to go. I was told to “find a way to get Bill to retire.”

I never in my life had fired anyone for something like this. I was told point blank to make his life “miserable” at work so he will want to hang it up. If I didn’t I would be out the door.

Can you just imagine my dilemma? How could I do this to a man who only had his job to look forward to each day as he had lost his family due to his breakdown? Now I was forced to make a choice — ruin his life or end my career. I did what was expected of me, and I retired shortly after that incident because I could not handle the guilt anymore. I only had three more years to stick it out and receive full benefits for life with 25 years of state service, but because of these two incidents, which both in my opinion were racist situations, I left. I still today think about that man and what I was forced to do to his life.

My summation of this story is this: I am not a racist and do not believe in systemic racism. Racism is a choice made individually, not by a class of color. Both whites and people of color need to be accountable as individuals for racism, not as a group. We all will answer to our maker one day for how we treat one another.

Judith Caldwell



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