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    Donna Houser

Donna’s change of heart evidence of her courage

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Register editor

I’m a captive of “The Crown,” the PBS mini-series on Britain’s royal family. The sheer opulence of their lives is mesmerizing. That, and their unhappiness in spite of it all. The show’s writers indulge us in Schadenfreude; feeling satisfaction at another’s misfortune. 

One segment sticks with me. 

Prince Philip persuades the Queen to allow a BBC film crew to invade the palace for a spell in order to curry public opinion. Elizabeth can’t see the point. “We’re just normal people,” she says as her lady-in-waiting brushes her hair. 

 

I MENTION this only because we all have blinders on to one thing or another.

Most recently, 17-year-old Allie Utley has helped us see how a waterway in town named Coon Creek is offensive, particularly to African Americans.

Some viewed Utley’s campaign to return the name to its original Small Creek as making a mountain out of a molehill. 

“I’ve lived here 10 years and I’ve never heard a complaint (about Coon Creek) once,” Iola Councilman Ron Ballard said at Council’s Nov. 25 meeting.

Donna Houser also said at the time that she viewed Utley’s request for city leaders to change the name as tampering with history and that she, too, had never heard a disparaging remark about the creek’s name. 

Two things have since changed Donna’s mind.

First, Donna recently attended the 80th birthday bash for Spencer Ambler, a respected African American leader in town. 

“I got the cold shoulder,” she said Thursday. “Hardly anyone would talk to me.”

Now Donna isn’t one to easily slight. “I speak my mind,” she said, and appreciates when others do likewise. 

But to be snubbed by some of her longtime friends was a wakeup call. 

Second, she delved into the history of why the waterway’s name was changed. And just as Allie had said, city fathers adopted the name because a preponderance of African Americans lived along its shores. The derogatory slur is derived from the 1800s when slaves were confined in pens, or barracoons. 

Truly, it couldn’t get much worse.

By Monday night’s meeting, Donna wholeheartedly supported changing the creek’s name. 

 

PRIVILEGE can insulate us from the truth. 

Most likely, no one had told Donna that the creek’s name offended them because they didn’t feel comfortable coming forth about racism in their hometown. Better to just shoulder the injustice than act like a “snowflake” — the trendy term that denotes being thin-skinned.

Also, if someone has the temerity to question whether you mind a racist slur, well, that’s insulting in itself. It’s like asking someone if they “mind” being denigrated. The answer is obvious. 

Privilege protects us from having to walk in another’s shoes.

As a Wichita teenager in the 1950s, Donna, now 82, worked as a lifeguard. 

When it came time to teach swimming lessons, she was surprised the African Americans in her class had never been in a swimming pool before and were afraid.

“It didn’t dawn on me that until then, they had been banned from public pools,” she said.

It wasn’t until 1955 that Iola commissioners voted to allow people of color to use Iola’s Municipal Pool.

 

LEXY TURNTINE, an African American student at Allen Community College, also gave City Council members an idea of what it’s like to live in Iola. 

“Minority students at Allen are used to being made uncomfortable,” Turntine said. “We’re often prepared for the glares we get at Walmart, for the all-too attentive gas station employees who follow us around.

“We’ve grown to expect it.”

“I’m not local,” she continued. “Most minority students at ACCC aren’t. We didn’t grow up in Iola, and we’re not likely to grow old in Iola. You tell me, what should we expect in Iola? Should we expect an ally, a city focused on moving forward?”

 

WE LIVE in a time when people feel legitimized to voice hate, make bigoted slights or hide behind their privileged status.

That means we need to work all the harder to show Spencer, Lexy and other young people that Iola is a town where minorities feel wanted and appreciated. 

Donna’s public reversal on the creek is an admirable step in the right direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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