This Is Toledo: A Frank Discussion of Race

Children learn in school that the Civil Rights Movement wiped out segregation and eliminated racism.

The recent killings of Black men and women by white police officers tell a different story: racism was never eliminated. While perhaps more subtle, the feelings of superiority remain powerful, pervasive, and systematic.

Well-meaning white Americans latched onto the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Progressive white people claim they “do not see color,” yet that is a privilege afforded to those who are white. Black Americans live every day reminded of, and judged by, the color of their skin.

The first step toward creating a just and equal world is to openly listen to the voices of all people — particularly those in the Black community — to educate ourselves about racism in America, and to then reflect on ways to help and support our Black community.

Four Toledo residents share their stories here of how racism affects their lives, in both big and small ways. If the current protests in Toledo have taught our community anything, it is that racism and injustice are not issues relegated to “other” cities.

As actor Will Smith said back in 2016, “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” 

Alisa Gafeney. ALISA GAFENEY, School Nurse, Nursing Professor, and Owner of Avocado and Cheese, LLC, is also mother to 18-year-old Nasyah (Nuh-sy-uh), who attends Howard University, a historically black university in Washington D.C., and is studying Music Therapy.

What is one of your earliest race-related memories?
My earliest memory of (being conscious about) race was ( when I was) around 7 or 8. One of my friend’s parents made a “weird” comment to me. I didn’t understand it then, but I did as I grew older.

Do you remember the comment?
She called me “Lisa dog.”

And how–at such a young age–were you able to read between the lines?
I felt her. Even going into some establishments, you can just feel the atmosphere… it will just change. It’s so subtle. Like I walked into a store one time, and I was the only person in there, and these people in there didn’t say, “How you doing?” or “Welcome to the store!” I had to get their attention… and I was the only person in the store. When I finally did get their attention, they were very short with me and not at all welcoming. 

How has your life been shaped/influenced by race?
I have been subject to blatant racism several times throughout my life and career. From a coworker making a joke comparing my skin to a wheat bagel to an older patient telling me, “Hey! Guess what I have for you? A rope and a tree!” Up to the point where I have lost my job, which was the worst time of my life. 

Do you mind sharing what happened with your job?
I was a nursing supervisor at a local hospital and had been in the position for 5 years. I wanted to move up to manager. I applied. I didn’t get it. 

When the new manager was in position, a week or two into it, she started to harass me: calling me into the office, giving me assignments, then calling me back, saying things like, “No, that’s not what I told you to do.” I had never had any discipline at this point [in my career], and she wrote me up for things like parking in the wrong spot in the garage. She also said I was bullying employees. It was terrible…I hated going to work. As soon as I got there, she began calling me into the office. I would go to HR and tell them what was going on, and they would go back and tell her. Eventually, they told me, “Well, you can either leave or get fired.” [The new manager] didn’t have any credentials: she was never a supervisor, no master’s degree…yet she got the job. I had experience as a supervisor and my Master’s Degree. So I quit before they could fire me.

Were you able to find a job quickly after that?
I did a lot of [temp] agency work after that. Coming from a supervisor position to working at an agency was a big cut financially. It was really bad. My salary was down, I lost my house, my car. I got a lawyer and sued and got a little bit of change. Even that whole thing was…(sighs). 

What is your response to the recent killings of Black men by white police officers?
Living in America is exhausting as a Black person. These killings are the equivalent of modern-day lynchings. I am always appalled at the disregard for Black life. I often wonder when this will stop and how can we facilitate TRUE change? Please do not forget to say the names of the Black women who have also died at the hands of police and anti-Black violence: Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Shelly Frey, Miriam Cane, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Alberta Spruil, Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis, Kyam Livingston. 

Do you feel there is a difference today from Black/white interactions from when you were growing up in Toledo?
Black/white interactions need work in Toledo; some places/spaces are not inclusive… race relations have changed very little in Toledo and in the nation.  Why are we still dealing with this again? 

For white people who would like to be allies, do you have any advice?
Support Black people. Support Black business. Try to understand we’re the same. There are some differences, but we’re people…we’re human. We bleed just like you do. I do not understand racism… I don’t. 

Alisa Gafeney teaching at Owens Community College.
Alisa Gafeney teaching at Owens Community College.

Favorite movie?
Imitation of Life… tearjerker, I cry every time.
Favorite comfort meal?
Mediterranean: grape leaves, hummus, pita, fatoush.
Favorite Toledo restaurant?
Poco Piatti
A Toledo business you love to support?
Yogaja Yoga
When you get some alone time, what’s your go-to activity?
Listening to music.
Describe Toledo in a sentence?
Home is where the heart is.
Describe your life in 5 words or less.
Blessed. Awesome. Adventure.
A book everyone should read?
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.
Who is someone you admire?
My parents.

John Robinson, Navy Vet.

JOHN ROBINSON II, Assistant Manager at T-Mobile, personal trainer, and former Navy petty officer, grew up in Toledo for the bulk of his life. 

What is one of your earliest memories of racism?
There are many memories of race embedded in my head, but one of the earliest and most memorable moments happened while I was [at Springfield High School]. We had an African-American woman as our principal (Rhonda Jemison Kimmons), who really cared about us and our future, and she orchestrated an assembly that pulled all the minority males out of class to help educate, motivate, and get us focused on our futures. She even gave us shirts that said “FOCUSED.” So some of the white kids came to school the next day with shirts made saying “unfocused” on them, and some of the parents even showed up to a board meeting in all white suits to protest having another minority assembly in the future. That just shows you how they like to embrace our culture but not embrace us.

Editor’s note: Rhonda Jemison Kimmons, along with Nathaniel Floure (fondly referred to as “Officer Nate” by students), are both no longer at Springfield High School (SHS) as of this upcoming school year. Officer Nate worked at SHS for 26 years; Kimmons was assistant principal and then principal for over 10 years, with 25 years working in education overall. 

How has your life been shaped/influenced by race?
[W]e have to work twice, sometimes three times, as hard in life for everything we want just because of the racial barriers we have to overcome. Although it may be tough and tiresome at times, I wouldn’t change my skin color for anything in the world because I am Black and proud. 

What is your response to the recent killings of Black men by white police officers?
These killings aren’t police protecting themselves; they are murders from people who abuse their power and use their badge as a shield. Time and time again, we see these killings and cops just getting paid leave, or if they get fired, they can easily find the same job in a different county using the same behaviors. So you tell me: what type of example does that set? It’s sad to see that America has a bigger problem with Colin Kaepernick kneeling for these exact reasons than a police officer killing a black man by kneeling on his neck. Ask yourself: how can white mass shooters be taken into custody peacefully, but unarmed Black men can get shot just for looking suspicious? Why do they always want us to forgive and forget but not want justice for us? As sad and as extreme as it may sound, if these unjust killings by police continue, then these riots are just the calm before the storm of an inevitable civil war. I hope it does not get to that, but at the same time, people can only take so much. I don’t agree with the rioting, but the same sadness and anger that non-Black people have felt this past couple of days is the same sadness and anger that Black people have felt all their lives, so I understand. 

When you have kids of your own, how do you plan to explain these killings to them?
I intend on explaining these killings to my children with 100% honesty. The worst thing you can do is deprive someone of their history. They need to know that racism wasn’t getting worse; it just came to light more when being recorded. I honestly hope and pray that things will be better by the time I have kids old enough to talk to them about this, but the only way it’s going to get better is when the people who condone racism, who turn a blind eye to it, and/or those unaffected are just as sad and enraged as those [of us] who it does affect.

John with his little sister at Christmas.
John with his little sister Jaiana at Christmas.

Do you think there are things your parents taught you as a Black man that white parents may not have taught their white children?
Yes, there are things that I suspect my parents told me that white parents didn’t have to teach their kids. For instance: because you are Black, know the law — don’t let the law know you. Because you’re Black, when you get pulled over, keep your hands on the wheel, do not talk back, and let them know when you are reaching for your ID and where you are reaching. Because your skin is a different shade, people are not going to like you just because of that.

What is something you wish people knew about living as a Black man?
What I wish people knew is that we are viewed as a threat no matter what we do or where we go. That our parents have to say a prayer every time their kids leave the house, hoping their sons and daughters come home safe every night. That when we encounter police, our skin color is already viewed as a weapon. That your Black jokes are not funny. That us Black people are not your enemy. That our Black lives matter, too.

Do you have any advice for those who want to be allies?
Don’t partake in looting and vandalism just because you see others doing it — that doesn’t help the cause; it just makes a bigger mess. Don’t support us just now because it’s “trendy,” but after these protests and riots stop, you still need to shut down the racism you encounter in the future. 

John Robinson II

Favorite movie?
Shottas…an old Jamaican gangster movie.
Favorite comfort meal?
Really any soul food.
A book everyone should read?
The Secret to Success: When You Want to Succeed as Bad as You Want to Breathe by Eric Thomas.
Who is someone you admire?
Nipsey Hussle
A Toledo business you love to support?
J’maes Home Cooking
When you get some alone time, what’s your go-to activity?
Describe your life in 5 words or less?
Hustle and motivate.

MOLLY KLIMA, a hospice Social Worker, grew up in Petersburg, MI “down on the farm.” She and her husband, Kerry, have three Black sons, aged 7, 8, and 9. 

The Klima Family.

How is your view of racism different now than it was growing up?
I knew it was a “thing” growing up, but I never saw it until I went to college and took a trip to the Southside of Chicago. It was then I realized that racism is not just a few people in our country; it’s systemic and has purposefully marginalized minorities in our country. When I spent 5 years in an organization where I was the minority on the staff, it was a great time to listen to and learn from my co-workers about how life was different for them.

How do you think your life has been shaped by being white?
I think it’s been easy. I’m used to being the majority in almost every scenario and being given the benefit of the doubt everywhere I go. With little effort, I can be comfortable by staying in all-white places where I don’t stand out.

What is your response to the killings of Black men and women by white police officers?
Outrage, anxiety and grief. I am raising my children in a different America than white parents, and these [killings] prove that. I have no fear of walking into an unfinished construction site or an abandoned building. I’ve done it before. Even before Ahmaud, would I want my boys to do it? No, they won’t be given the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion, officers and fellow citizens do not get to decide when people die. I have very strong beliefs that every person has value, and for people to be killed in the street or at the park is unacceptable, especially when it is an abuse of power. There was no threat in almost all of these instances and we will never get to hear the other side of the story. Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin are especially difficult for me as a mom to three young, Black sons. George Zimmerman was told by 911 dispatchers to stop following Martin and he did not. In the Tamir Rice case, the 911 dispatcher and responding officers broke protocols, and within seconds of arriving at the park, Tamir was dead. There’s a lack of accountability in some of the most critical systems, and everyone should be concerned about that.

Have you talked to the boys about these killings?
We had to start addressing racism when they were in a preschool because a classmate told one of our sons, “All Black people are bad. We shouldn’t be nice to them.” I went to peaceful protests for George Floyd, and we had the conversation about what is happening right now, but we have also discussed past murders of Black men/boys by police. This may be the hardest part of raising young men of color so far: to be a responsible parent, we have to let them know that some people will make assumptions about them before they know them, based on their skin tone. That is very difficult to do when you are trying to raise your kids to be confident in who they are.

What do you say to your white friends/family about these killings?
We are really blessed to have immediate family that is quick to listen. It’s not always easy to bring up or discuss, but they listen to us and are very supportive. It’s not our main topic of conversation all the time — by any means it’s not like our family revolves around this — but they are there when we need them and I know they are trying to learn and grow with us, including my 87-year-old grandma. There’s usually a discussion of what facts are known at the time and then how implicit bias feeds these situations. Always the question of “What do we do?”

How is what you say to and/or teach your children different than what another parent may say to and/or teach his/her white children?
My parents never had much conversation with my brothers and I about how to interact with police other than to be respectful. We weren’t coached to keep our hands on the wheel or to tell the officer every move [we are going to] make. My nephews and sons’ friends don’t need to be taught this either. Key word is “need.” We are already making sure our boys take their hoods down in stores; no one ever taught me that. We have had to address issues like slavery before it’s…a discussed topic in school so that they can be prepared, and that will hopefully minimize or avoid any shame or embarrassment they might associate with that. I want people to realize how young these conversations have to start with my kids…yet for white families, they are almost completely optional.

What do you wish the white parents of your boys’ friends knew? How can they be allies?
It’s necessary for you to talk to your kids about race. We don’t know how kids are interpreting race if we don’t ask. It’s important to talk about it and have boundaries, so kids understand [things like] it’s not okay to touch their hair (my one son HATES this). No one asks to touch white hair; they shouldn’t ask to touch his. His hair shouldn’t be used to satisfy someone else’s curiosity. And don’t use Black vernacular like “dog” with my boys, especially if their hair is done or they’re dressed a certain way. 

Educate. Educate. Educate. Depending on your life experience and education, it’s easy to view racism as a few isolated incidents. It’s imperative that everyone understands the history of our country and how this has contributed to where we are today. There are a ton of resources all over right now to learn more about what has happened, what’s happening and how we move forward. Listen. Do not try to rationalize or explain away people’s experiences. Listen with an open mind, listen to the people of color around you. Don’t expect people of color to provide all the education. Do some of the research and work yourself. CHECK ON YOUR PEOPLE. We, as a nation, are not okay right now. If you have people of color in your life that you have genuine relationships with, reach out. If you have white friends raising [children of color], reach out. We don’t get to turn a blind eye — not if we are willing to acknowledge the reality of raising our children. We are not okay.

Editor’s note: Molly shared a blog that could be helpful for white parents: Dear White Parents of My Black Child’s Friends: I Need Your Help

Favorite movie?
Dead Poets Society
Favorite comfort meal?
Shrimp or fish tacos.
Favorite Toledo restaurant?
Carlos Que Pasa and Grape Leaf Express
Favorite spot in Toledo?
The Metroparks!
When you get some alone time, what’s your go-to activity?
Reading or exercising.
A book everyone should read?
Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People by Bob Goff and White Ghetto: How Middle Class America Reflects Inner City Decay by Star Parker
Who is someone you admire?
My grandma, Mary Lou.

PHILLIP THOMAS, a Quality Manager for a local food manufacturer, is originally from Ashtabula, Ohio (about 50 miles east of Cleveland) but has lived in Toledo for years. He is married with 5 kids: Jayden (18), Simon (17), Elijah (15), Sophie (14), and Kingston (10).

What is one of your earliest race-related memories?
It’s pretty ironic… think I learned about racism through the eyes of those in my community when I was 7 or 8. Not that I wasn’t experiencing it…I just didn’t know what it was. My family, specifically my grandmother, never taught us to treat others any differently or never taught us that we were any different, although she lived through an era in the South where they were still oppressed and blatantly limited in access to basic human rights. As a 7- or 8-year-old, I began to first notice how differently people of color, people who looked like me, people I knew and loved, were treated and talked to differently by Caucasian-Americans. It was a feeling of unease…it was a feeling like we had done something wrong. When we would go into a store…the looks we would get. The way we would be addressed. The places we could go and not go. As I look back [to that time] as a child, I now can put a name to what I was feeling.

How has your life been shaped/influenced by race?
Race has been very influential in my life, for better and worse. Not having the same access to all the opportunities — luxuries, financial literacy, generational wealth, positive social-economical outlook — was not fair. It was not fair that I was judged based on the color of my skin and not the content of my character. It was frustrating that I felt that I had to be two times better than a Caucasian to gain a “seat at the table” and experience some of the same freedoms and opportunities that are freely given to others. 

What those obstacles ultimately did was make me develop into a better version of myself. [With] limited resources for learning, I spent my hours in libraries after school.  [People asked me] why I was in honors math and political science in high school, and then I outperformed those who thought they belonged. It made we work harder, develop an attitude of excellence, become resourceful, think outside the box, and it pushed me to strive to always be the best. Now it allows me to use my experiences to prepare my children to develop these same characteristics and to also be there to help them push through those same barriers. The problem I see here is that I have to STILL use my experiences and knowledge to prepare them for how the world will treat them as persons of color in America.

How do you feel about the killings of Black men and women by white police officers?
Killing is horrible no matter what the reasoning, but these should resonate a little differently with everyone. Police have a tough job. It is a stressful position where split-second decisions may need to be made. Some of these decisions are life-altering…but as with any other profession, you are only as good as and only perform to the level of training you receive and the level of expectations you are held to. To say any of these incidents where Black Americans were killed by police officers had nothing to do with race is dangerous. We have seen plenty of interactions that have not ended up with fatalities that have dealt with Caucasian-Americans. We have seen serial shooters, rapists, domestic terrorists all leave in cuffs and get their due process…things more horrible than selling CDs or potential forgery. Why the need for lethal force in those common and less serious altercations with Black Americans? If we do not hold ourselves, our elected public officials, and public servants to the highest moral codes, we all fail. If we don’t address the wrongs and provide consequences for breaking agreed upon laws, we all fail. Right now, we are failing at protecting our Black Americans. Right now, we are failing all the normal, god-fearing and just men and women in law enforcement. This is a problem and we cannot hide it anymore…or our country will tear itself apart. 

How do you explain these killings to your children? What about to those who are not Black?
The discussions I have had to have over the last 8 years with my children are heartbreaking. They fear the police; they are scared. With the latest killing — and it’s so bad I have to say the “latest” — I have had to paint a better picture in a bleak world right now. I tell them that unfortunately there are people who are so angry at losing their identity that they feel like they must destroy ours. I remind them that not all police and those working in law enforcement are bad…and that these horrible instances and interactions bring about the fact that we all must change, we all have to do and hold ourselves to a high moral code. To those who are not Black, I say seek to understand the outrage, seek to understand these are not isolated incidents, seek to hold people accountable for their actions, seek for Life, Liberty, and Justice for ALL. 

The Thomas Family.
The Thomas Family.

How is what you say to and/or teach your children different than what a white parent may say to and/or teach his/her white children?
I think conversations, teachings, and understandings are very much different for black parents with their children then white parents. Why do I say this? Because I should know…I have both. The worldview I present to my children is consistent and the same: we want them to be happy, treat others with love, and give back more on this Earth than they have taken. Although we give them the same worldview, we talk differently on how the world will view them. Where I worry about what time my stepchildren who are white will be home when they go out, I worry if my Black sons will come home at all. When I started preparing the older ones to drive, I told my stepson, who is white, about the laws of the road. I told my son, who is Black, what to do if you are pulled over by a cop. 

While we encourage our children who are white to express their freedoms and be individuals, I encourage my Black sons to know their rights, know their freedoms, be an individual but know when to express yourself and where. Although all children face many pressures today because of the age of social media, my Black sons will face all of those same things but also that the color of their skin may blind people to who they are and what pain, suffering, needs, and desires they may have.

Phil and his sons, Jayden, Elijah and Kingston.

As a Black father, I feel that I must reinforce with my Black sons, “You are worthy, you are strong, you are special, there is nothing wrong with you, you are intelligent, you are beautiful, you are loved by God as any other person no matter what their color happens to be.” The world may tell you differently, so instead of listening to them, go show them who you really are and change the world. I feel like they need to be excellent because others are looking for a reason to knock them down. I feel like I must conduct myself in a certain way to not limit their opportunities…like they must have an equal or better quality of life to their peers’ families so that they can have a “seat at the same table” as others. Desires for our children are the same, but I feel that my Black sons have tougher and more challenging roads due to the ignorance of the world.

In your experience, how are Black/white interactions in Toledo?
My experience in Toledo has been better than other places I have lived. I think this due to the dynamic of the city…there is a more diverse population in Toledo. We still have work to do, but the more we interact and are able to break stereotypes, the closer we get to gaining trust and respect from each other.

Do you feel there is a difference from when you were growing up? Is racism worse, better, about the same?
Hmmmm…I don’t know if racism is getting better or worse. I feel more like it is changing. With the dawn of social media we now SEE more racism, but it is the same type of interactions Black people have been facing for years. I do believe that we have made people more aware of what struggles and adversities minorities are facing, which is positive, but only if actions are taken to correct these root causes. I do feel in today’s current climate people feel more emboldened to act out on their racist views than in years prior. I believe this goes to those we look to as leaders and the environment they create with their words and actions. We need leaders who promote togetherness, justice, peace, love, and equality for all Americans.

What is something you wish non-Black people knew about living as a Black man?
That I ate chicken and rice for lunch. I try not to laugh when people fall. I try not to run late for appointments, but something always comes up. Fall is my favorite season because it reminds me of my Grandmother. I taught myself to juggle. I love history and sci-fi. My children think I’m a superhero. I love my wife. My dogs remind me when it is time for them to eat. I have a fear of water — specifically deep water — but love going on cruises. When I fall, I bleed.  When people call me names, it hurts. When I see someone hurt, it bothers me. When I see someone in need, I help. 

What I would like others to know about Black people is that we are PEOPLE. Yes, we have different hair, traditions, clothes, taste in music, language, but everyone is the SAME DIFFERENT LIKE ME. We all are special in our own way. Every race has something unique about them and that is what makes them special.

As a Black man, we are constantly viewed as a threat…why? Through hundreds of years, Black people were kept as slaves, murdered for wanting to be free, murdered for talking to white people, chased if they ran from plantations and punished when brought back, lynched, towns burned down, not able to use the same restrooms as everyone, not able to eat at the same places, not able to have the same opportunities for jobs. So, to think that just because the Civil Rights movement created some policies 60 years ago that things are okay is delusional. Policies may talk about what we should do, but the people who benefited from those horrible deeds are still around. We are not that far removed. You can’t flip a light switch and tell racist people not to be racist anymore. Just like you can’t tell the people who were oppressed that they should forget what happened and move on. We are all in our current positions in life now because of the opportunities or lack of opportunities given to us from the past. We have some catching up to do…all of us. People need to heal and that takes time, but also constructive conversations and interactions. I can’t speak for all Black Men, but here is what I would ultimately like you to know:

Black Men are Fathers, Brothers, Sons…like you.
We do not want to hurt you; stop fearing us.
We do not want handouts but a far share to the American Dream.
We have a fear of white people and police because it was ingrained in us to have those fears…help us change that.
We do love our Country, but not the way it has treated us…help us change that.
We want to talk with you, learn with you, and move forward with you to a better world…help us do that.
We are not all thugs, thieves or criminals…let us help you understand that.
We are different, but we ALL are different and that is what makes America great…help us keep that spirit alive.
We are not mad at all white people, but we have frustrations developed by continued oppression…help us fix that.
You are welcome to our churches, barbecues, pool parties, dances…invite us into your lives as well.
We don’t want much, just to be viewed as equal…can you help us do that?

Phil and Betty Thomas.

Favorite movie?
The Lion King
Favorite comfort meal?
Favorite Toledo restaurant?
Mancy’s Italian
Favorite spot in Toledo?
Toledo Zoo
When you get some alone time, what’s your go-to activity?
Working out
Describe Toledo in a sentence?
A place of promise.
Describe your life in 5 words or less.
Journey of Self Reflection.
A book everyone should read?
Who is someone you admire?
Barack Obama

Additional resources: 

Erin Schoen Marsh
Erin Schoen Marsh
Erin is a writer/editor, yoga teacher, and mama to two little ones.

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