Cherry Steinwender is Executive Director and cofounder of the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston. In this podcast, she speaks about how she went from picking cotton and cleaning houses to co-founding the Center for the Healing of Racism. And, by the way, along the way she met and married a man who spoke only German.
(2:28): Cherry Steinwender describes her childhood.
[How Cherry, the oldest of seven girls and one boy, grew up in complete poverty, on and off welfare. Her mother worked in three and four jobs]
I was born in Appaloosas, Louisiana. When I was two years old, my mom and dad moved to Lake Charles. I remember very well going to work with my mother to help her clean houses. When I saw the movie The Help, I noticed that other little young girls went to work with moms too. And it really made me think about being prepared to take their place in society to be the next generation of help.
(8:23): When did you become aware of racism?
I've been aware of racism every inch and every bit of my life. The Catholic Church was White in this segregated town. They told us all the time that we were all equal and we were all God's children. But my friends that look like me tried to go to the church one Sunday. Well, interestingly enough, they were told at the door they're not allowed to go in and were reminded there was a church right down the street that was just for them.
(13:32): What else did you see?
I started having my own job at 10 years old, but before that, I worked during the summers with my aunties in Appaloosas, picking cotton. The truck would pick us up in the corners in the dark of morning, as many as you could pack onto a truck, drive to the cotton fields, and get out to work for $3 per 100 pounds of cotton. I only picked 100 pounds one time, which meant we only made $3. One day and that's from sunup to sundown.
The school was called the colored school. And I never did get a brand-new textbook until I was in the ninth grade. All the books that I learned to read were books handed down from the White schools.
It wasn't just the schools. When you talk about racism most people talk about the water fountains, the colored and Black water fountains. A lot of it was also trying to go into department stores to buy clothes for school, which you were not allowed to try on. My mother would draw our silhouette and our foot size on paper bags, because you had to take something into a department store to try to get an idea of how will this garment fit, because once I walk out of here with it, I can't bring it back.
(17:13): Tell me about internalized racism.
This is when the targeted groups have all of the negative information, the stereotypes, the caricatures, everything negative, and we are flooded with the images and words that cause us to hate ourselves. What it really boils down to is self hate.
Because of Louisiana’s history of being owned by the French, because a lot of the French aristocrats took Black women as their mistresses, there were so many White looking Negro people in the neighborhood that I grew up in. So you're fighting White racism on one hand, and you're fighting internalized racism on the other hand, you’re dealing with that as well. Light skinned boys would never date me because I was too dark. Because of our own self hate under colorism or pigment autocracy, we started hating anything that is dark.
(20:21): I remember when I couldn’t wear red lipstick.
I wouldn't wear red clothing. Because it made me look like those lawn jockeys sitting on the front lawns of White people. There's a lot of Black people who don't eat watermelon.
I think Malcolm X said it best, we were trained from the top of our heads to the bottom of our feet to hate ourselves.
(22:31): Did you go to a Catholic school?
No, it was a public school. The majority of the students in the Catholic school were lighter skinned. And then they would let the children in the Catholic school out of school half an hour earlier, because they did not want them to interface with the public school kids on their walk home. People wonder why we are still talking about slavery; we’re talking about it because it has been so coded in us.
(24:26): It was the segregation and Jim Crow that really did us in and led to what we have today. Did it make you sad? Did it make you rebellious? Did it make you angry?
As you grow older in different circumstances, you go through a lot of different emotions. It's not just one that emerged and then you stick with that one for the rest of your life. You go through that phase of totally questioning everything, then I went to the anger, you know, just being totally pissed off. We are so conditioned around this colorism, when a light skinned boy wanted to take me out, I thought I was special.
(35:11): Let’s talk about forgiveness.
If I walk around with bitterness and anger, you know, I'm not gonna let you destroy me that way.
My mother and father were put in a tuberculosis hospital about 100 miles away from our home. I spent the majority of my time making gifts for all of the people at the hospital. I had a child, and when my baby died of leukemia at Texas Children's Hospital, I wanted so much to do something for other children. I am thinking about the need to give, that is another part of me. I came to the realization that there's nobody on this planet better than me. But I'm not better than anyone else.
I realized that all these people come to me for advice and help. I've said to people repeatedly that my whole life has prepared me to walk into the shoes to create and to hold this organization called the Center for the Healing of Racism. Always I tried to peddle hope, I want to give people hope.
(53:05): I'm a romantic at heart. I gotta understand you meeting your husband.
I’ve never been attracted to the White blood man. Never. But I met [the man who is now my husband]. He didn't speak English. I didn't speak German. My girlfriend spoke German, and she interpreted everything and then we used a German English dictionary. My husband was over here on holiday. He had no intention of staying here. He had one suitcase, passing through. Ten months later, we were married. We've been together 39 years now.
Y'all can't even talk. But there was something that was instantaneous. Just spin a little bit of time on that because I know I'm not the only romantic person who's going to hear this story and wonder how in the world you pulled that off.
My girlfriend invited her German girlfriend, who invited him to her home for dinner. After dinner, I invited him to go out to coffee at a coffee shop. At five minutes, he said I have no more words. He was able to some way let me understand. How did we communicate without a language? We didn’t really know what we were saying.
So now I'm teaching him English. And he wanted me to teach him flirt words so he can flirt with me. And I said to him, I don't have to teach you flirt words. Because every time you look at me, your eyes are blurred with me.
(45:54): How did you get to corporate America?
In 1978 I applied for a job at a medical firm. They hired me as one of the paper pushers or something I don't remember. But I wasn't in that position long when they hired me to be the supervisor. When I am on a job, I'm gonna learn everything there is about the job, I knew how to do everybody's job, the only one in the office that could do anybody's job if they called in sick or anything else. First Black person to ever hold that position.
My friend said: We need to do something about racism. I said I'm too old. I'm too damn tired. She said to me, Cherry, what is it? You've never felt comfortable enough to tell me what life is really like for you as a Black woman in this country. Wow. The idea that she would ask and make me strip that mask off. We found other people that wanted to talk about racism, we would sit around each other's kitchen table talking. And out of these conversations of talking about racism, we had no intentions of forming no nonprofit organization. We were just a group of people sitting around talking about racism.
When I stepped up there, to talk in public, to facilitate workshops, I always say, it really doesn't matter how White your skin is, or shades of brown. We've all been damaged around racism. Most White people have never even thought of it; it's easy for them to see how we have been damaged. But this will help them see they have been damaged around racism.
It's not that easy for people of European descent. They know nothing about us in our contributions to this country. The stories, the narratives that have been made up around indigenous people, Latin people.
(1:06:43): I'm gonna play devil's advocate with you. Here’s what some people will say: “I've been told a lie. And I felt good. I have moved ahead in my life and in my career. So what?”
After the Whitley Plantation was restored, when White people come to see it, they often say, well, why don't Black people just get over it? And I’ll never forget what the owner said. The reason they [White people] can say that is because they don't know what it is. So go to that plantation, and really see what plantation life was about to really tell that story. It's the only plantation museum in this whole country that tells the story through the eyes of the people that were enslaved there.
(1:17:55): I hear about the Center for the Healing of Racism and Dialogue: Racism all the time. But I never see any advertising.
We did not have a large marketing budget to go out on a marketing campaign. But I have been on just about every English-speaking television station. I've been in the newspapers. I've been on radio, and seven in June, as I just did to NPR, just a few months ago.
The phase that we're in now, George Floyd had to be brutally lynched in front of the eyes of the world. For almost nine minutes. Floyd’s little girl said, my dad will change the world. And I don't know how much of the world he changed. But I know he changed this organization.
I believe that my whole life prepared me to be in the space that I'm in.
Let's look at why we named it the Center for the Healing of Racism: we wanted to focus on healing. And if we believe, because of those early conversations that we've all been hurt, there must be a place that we could come together to begin to heal those hurts.
(1:24:28): This is the time we have left: tell me the foundation of the center. What's your framework?
The foundation of the center is that everybody has been hurt, everybody has been affected around racism. We've all been damaged. So there must be a place that we can come together to begin to heal those wounds, and the way that the healing can take place. As Gandhi said, the greatest gift that you can give to another human being is to be totally present in your listening. The Center for the Healing of Racism serves as a catalyst for the healing of racism, the education and empowerment of individuals.
(1:29:56): Tell people how to find out about the Center for the Healing of Racism.
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