Finding myself in the story of race

As a young newspaper reporter just starting out in the early 1960s, I once found myself covering the same event as a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American.

He remarked to me that he was a member of the “black press” and I was a member of the “white press.”

I didn’t say anything, but I thought he was mistaken.  He served the black community of Baltimore; I served the entire community around Hagerstown, Md.

But then, as I thought about it, I recalled that not one black person was employed in my newsroom, and probably never had been.  In fact, not one black person worked in the entire building, and that was true for the entire time I worked there.

Having achieved this insight, I promptly forgot it.   It never occurred to me to raise the issue.

I wrote in favor of civil rights and against racial discrimination whenever the opportunity arose during my 40 years on newspapers.

But there were weeks, maybe months, at a time when I never thought about race or myself being white.   If I weren’t white, I wouldn’t be able to do that.   Awareness of racial attitudes would be a survival skill that I wouldn’t be able to do without.

I thought about this after reading Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, a liberal white women from Massachusetts whose aim is to make other white people more self-aware.

Her accounts of her limitations and misunderstandings have been “cringe-worthy” by reviewers, but as I look back on my own life, I think my well-meaning blunders were as cringe-worthy as hers.


Debby Irving wrote that the cultural values of middle-class white people make us unable to understand poor people or black people.

I learned the truth of this 15 or so years ago when I undertook to be a chauffeur for Bernice Cook, a poor black member of my church.  She lacked a car and so depended in public transportation to go shopping or keep medical appointments.   Things that I could do in an hour with a car took her the best part of a day without one.

We got to know each other fairly well.  I experienced culture shock the first time Bernice asked me for money.  I was taught as a boy that the one thing you must never, ever do is to ask people for money, except maybe for blood relatives and then only in the direst emergency.

The reason I felt I had no moral right to ask anyone for money is that I recognized no moral obligation to give money to others in need.  My assumption was that everybody ought to be able to look out for themselves.

Bernice’s day-to-day life was a continuing series of emergencies.   She was poor and she did not hoard resources.  She was willing to share everything she had with others in crisis, and so she had a moral right to ask for help from others.

Actually, she lived by the ethic of the Gospels, which is to give to those in need and take no thought of the morrow.  Many poor people are like that.   Come to think of it, the pagan Romans sneered at Christianity as a religion of slaves, poor people and women.

Living by the teachings of Jesus is not feasible for me as a middle-class person.  I could not do it and continue to be middle-class.  The best I can do is to live by the ethic of the Stoics—do my duty, keep my promises, tell the truth (or at least refrain from lying) and not whine about it.


Bernice was greatly beloved my many people, both white and black.  She died in 2009 and her funeral service was held at the First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., most of whose members are white.

The black people at the funeral were more expressive in their worship than we whites. I noticed during the funeral service how the black people were constantly starting to stand up, or shout “amen,” or clap, and then restrain themselves because the white people around them weren’t doing it.

This is a penalty of being in the minority.  Black Americans are constantly adjusting their behavior to conform to the standards of whites.   Like many white people, I’m oblivious to this most of the time.


Below is an article I wrote for the First Universalist newsletter of the First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on the occasion of Bernice Cook’s death in 2009.   People like her should not be forgotten.


My Friend, Bernice Cook

Bernice Cook is one of people I’ve known in my life whom I most admire.  If I had as much as half her courage and generosity of heart, I would have reason to be pleased with myself.

Bernice Cook

I’d known Bernice Cook since I started attending First Universalist Church in the early 1980s, but I didn’t really get to know her until the two of us worked together each month on preparing the paper Our Outlook for mailing. Bernice didn’t have a car, so Eleanor Siegfried drove her to church for the Outlook crew, and when Eleanor temporarily left the crew, the job of driving Bernice fell to me. Over time I started driving Bernice to medical and other appointments as well.

This was easy enough to do.  Being retired, I am free in the daytime on weekdays.

Having a pocketsize paperback book with me at all times, I never was bored spending time in waiting rooms.

Spending time with Bernice enabled me to appreciate what kind of person she was.  I had known that she grew up in First Universalist Church and that her son, Chaz Mitchell, was (as far as I know) the only third-generation member of this church.  Bernice shared with me her love and concern for her three sons, and how she had taught them the value of work and education and tried to shield them from the bad influences in Rochester’s inner city.

She told me how as a little girl she went to summer camp, how a white girl didn’t want to bunk with her because she was black, and how she patiently showed the white girl how foolish it is to judge people by the color of their skins. Bernice was never angry or bitter about incidents of racism, as I am sure I would have been in her place, but only filled with a sense of wonderment at how people can be so wrongheaded.

Bernice told me that she was the first woman to qualify as a machinist at Rochester Products Division of General Motors Corp. That was in the days when good jobs at good wages were plentiful.

Later she worked for the Visiting Nurse Service, during which she learned all the highways and byways of Rochester and its suburbs. Even though it had been quite some time since she had a car, she knew the routes to where we were going better than I. Sometimes when I was taking one of Bernice’s short cuts I would feel completely lost, but her directions always took us to where we needed to go.

Bernice had great intellectual curiosity. She was a regular attender of the drop-in discussions. When we were on the road, she noticed any new construction or changes in business establishments, and speculated on what they were.

By the standards of many people, Bernice was poor in material possessions. But she was always willing to share what she had with her extended family.

Because she was so willing to give herself, she did not hesitate to ask others for help. I hesitate to ask for things from other people because there is a limit to what I am willing to give; I don’t feel I have the right. Greathearted Bernice had no reason for such a feeling.

I deeply admired Bernice’s great courage in facing her many medical problems. Only a person of great physical and spiritual strength could have kept going as long as she did. She underwent three rounds of radiation treatment and two rounds of surgery for thyroid cancer before she was pronounced cured. Then she went into a long period of recovery from the side effects of her treatment.

In the final months of her life, she went to Rochester General Hospital for knee replacement surgery. While there she was diagnosed with blood clots that resulted in the amputation of her foot. Then on top of that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She faced all these things with optimism and courage.

I was so affected by her positive outlook that I was blind to the reality of her situation. Until the last, I thought of each bad thing as just one more set of ordeals she had to get through until she could lead a normal and happy life. But this was not to be.

Somebody defined happiness as the right to look back on your life with justified satisfaction. With all the pain and struggle in her life, Bernice had that right as much as anyone I know.


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2 Responses to “Finding myself in the story of race”

  1. whungerford Says:

    As a young engineer I was mentored by an African-American fellow worker, the first black engineer to work for that company. Among many other things, he pointed out that besides the “Detroit Free Press” and and the “Detroit News,” one might subscribe the the “Michigan Chronicle” for an alternative view of the news. Good advice, I now realize–


    • philebersole Says:

      I had a similar experience when I did my military service. In 1958, I was a clerk in a U.S. Army detachment in St. John’s, Newfoundland, working for a Captain Huddy, who was white, and a Sergeant Jeremiah Lewis, who was black.

      I was naive and immature, and Sgt. Lewis took me under his wing.

      He told me a lot of stories about racial conflict between white and black American troops in England during World War Two.

      An English girl asked him whether it was true that Negroes had tails, because that’s what a white GI had told her. He told me about fights between white and black troops, and a live hand grenade being thrown into a black encampment. All this was hushed up, of course.


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