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MLK Day speaker, granddaughter of Percy and Lileah Harris, encourages hard conversations

Evelyn Carter

Social psychologist Dr. Evelyn Carter will speak about confronting racial bias in Cedar Rapids Monday.
Evelyn Carter Social psychologist Dr. Evelyn Carter will speak about confronting racial bias in Cedar Rapids Monday.

Evelyn Carter knows conversations about race can be difficult, but she wants more people to have them.

“People are very apprehensive about speaking about race in general,” she said during a phone interview on Thursday. “But that conversation is how we’re going to start to break down inequities.”

Carter, who has a doctorate in social psychology, has studied racial bias and writes and speaks about confronting bias. She will be the keynote speaker at three Martin Luther King Jr. events in Cedar Rapids today, including a talk at Coe College at 9 a.m., a workshop at the Cedar Rapids Public Library at 2 p.m. with her mother, Anne Harris Carter, and an address during a community celebration at 6:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.

“The overarching theme I’m really excited to be talking about is colorblindness, why colorblindness is not an ideology we need to be embracing when we talk about diversity and inclusion,” she said. “It’s only recently that we’ve started to understand that celebrating and embracing diversity and recognizing differences is really the way to go.”

Though she lives in Los Angeles, Carter has roots in Cedar Rapids — her grandparents were local luminaries Percy and Lileah Harris. Percy Harris was the Linn County medical examiner for 40 years, and both he and Lileah held numerous leadership positions in the community.

Among other activities, he served as the first black member of the Iowa Board of Regents, was president of the NAACP Cedar Rapids Chapter and was medical staff president at St. Luke’s Hospital, while she served on the board of the NAACP and the Cedar Rapids Human Rights Commission, among other positions.

The under-construction the Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services center, the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building, will be named for the couple.

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The celebration at St. Paul’s will include presentation of the annual Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris “Who is My Neighbor” Award, given to an individual recognized for working of justice in Linn County.

“I think they impacted me because they impacted my mother. My mom has basically been working in diversity and inclusion almost as long as I can remember,” Carter said of her grandparents.

“In middle school and high school we referred to her as Ms. Diversity. She was always talking about being inclusive, always encouraging us to think about including people from all different kinds of groups.”

Yet she said it wasn’t until she was in college at Northwestern University that she started to fully understand the effect of race on her life. She later received her master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Ph.D. from Indiana University.

“Race wasn’t something that was talked about very much outside my house, outside my church,” she said. “In high school, all my friends were white. In college, I saw the vast array of what blackness can look like.”

She said once she started learning about the structural barriers of racism in American society, she wanted to find ways to break down those barriers.

“If you can’t talk about it, you can’t recognize it, you can’t fix it,” she said.

She said many white people grew up being told talking about race was rude, but that people sometimes use that as an excuse to not engage with racism. She said colorblindness also can be used to erase the experiences of people of color.

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Yet she cautioned people who want to start engaging with questions about race and structural racism to not rely on the people of color around them to do the mental and emotional work for them.

“There has to be some recognition that these conversations are difficult for people in different ways. My expectation is not for people of color to be a resource for white people all the time,” she said. “It takes a mental toll for people of color.”

Rather, white people who want to learn more should start with things such as books, podcasts and articles, she recommended, as well as attending public lectures and workshops. And then, she said, they should talk to other white people about these topics, what she calls “active allyship.”

“Part of my mantra is getting people to talk about race, but also to recognize there are conversations that have been happening for literally hundreds of years,” she said.

Carter is senior consultant at Paradigm Strategy Inc., co-founder of Illuminate Diversity Consuliting and served as director of translational research and anti-bias training in UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

• Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

• What: 60 Years Later: Why Colorblindness Falls Short

• Where: Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday

• Details: Musical performance by Kevin “B.F.” Burt and lecture Evelyn Carter, followed by workshops.

• What: Roots of the Past, Fruit of the Future workshop with Anne Harris Carter and Evelyn Carter

• Where: Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 2 p.m. Monday

• What: Dr. MLK Jr. Day Celebration and community meal

• Where: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1340 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 5:30 p.m. meal, 6:30 p.m. service, Monday

• Details: A freewill offering community meal will be followed by music from area choirs, keynote speaker Evelyn Carter and presentation of the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris “Who is My Neighbor?” Award.

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