ST. PETERSBURG – A packed room with roughly 200 people came out to hear the inspiring words of acclaimed race and gender activist Naomi Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Her message was one of peace and togetherness, but also determination.
Tutu’s nearly hour long speech at the 6th Annual Stand Against Racism Conference compared the time we live in to a song stuck on a repetitive loop, playing the same tune – the world making the same mistakes.
“I believe that we are called to sing a new song today,” Tutu told the crowd of mixed genders and cultures. “In this community, in this country, in this world, we have heard over and over the songs that divide.”
Tutu grew up in South Africa during apartheid and became a world-renowned activist for all human rights. Often living in the shadow of her father’s accomplishments, she embraced the opportunities and the challenges that being the daughter of a famous peacemaker brought and has vowed to build a better world.
She believes the time has come for her, for the oppressed lying low in communities, in the world, to raise their voices and become champions for the dignity of all.
The evening’s event was put on by the YWCA Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization dedicated to working to combat racism through services that benefit women, children and the homeless.
The always full of vigor Lenice Emanuel, president and CEO of YWCA Tampa Bay, emceed the event and couldn’t say enough about her organization.
“We believe more than ever that our mission is critical to the safety and future success of our community,” said Emanuel who is proud to serve the women, children, and families of all ethnicities and backgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. “Tonight we are having an opportunity to take a step forward in our efforts to eliminate racism by opening our hearts and our minds to greater understanding.”
Tutu spoke of the power of women all across the globe taking a stand and changing policy.
“We as women are tired of burying our children,” she expressed emphasizing the need for nonviolence, but also a need for women to take a stand and protest. “We are tired of worrying when our children walk out the door in the morning whether they will come back at night.”
She encourages society to embrace the differences in one another and no longer try to ignore them. She argued personalities, skin color and cultural history are the very things that offer the gifts needed to be a strong community. And that by overlooking color and attempting conformity, the issues between the races will never be overcome.
“I don’t want my differences to be ignored,” said Tutu commenting on how others believe they are showing their racial with-it-ness by informing her that they don’t view her as black. “I know I’m black – I have two, three, four mirrors in my house and each time I look at them there’s a black woman staring back at me,” she joked.
Tutu embraces her heritage and is proud of her background. But she feels that society in its haste to rectify past wrongs when it comes to racism is veering off full speed in the opposite direction and ignoring race altogether. A tide that makes her weary and wanting to speak up.
“I don’t want to not be a black woman; I want to be seen and recognized for who I am,” she said as she empowered the audience to believe in her mission, to spread the word that differences should not be cause fear or hatred. “I don’t want a world in which we try and pretend that we are all the same. We have never been all the same.”
Tutu recounted personal stories she experienced in her own life that have shaped her and educated her on the enormity of the racial divide in not only the United States, but the world. She admits to being angry when she experiences all forms of racism from blatant disregards, to cultural differences, to subtle nuisances in social conversations and interactions.
“Don’t take me wrong, I dream of a world where we respect one another’s humanity, but I also know that I too live in this world, this society, and sometimes that old ugly song rears itself in me,” she explained, “and I look with anger, I look with fear, and I look sometimes with almost hatred when I see what is done to our communities.”
As an activist, Tutu has seen hatred in many forms and guises from politicians using code words for racism, to those who look down on welfare moms, criminals or those that are chronically unemployed. Tutu hopes that her message of halting oppression will ring true and the promise to take a stand against racism will become an everyday mission for all races in the community, not an event or conference one simply attends a few times a year.
“It’s about in our daily lives when we see injustice, however small it might seem, that we stand and say I saw that and I am going to speak out on that,” Tutu said. “If we are going to stand against racism, we have to call it out and not pretend that we didn’t notice.”
She believes that in order for our country to survive, respecting humanity has to be the new foundation that is laid, the new song that is sung. The rich heritage of all nationalities is indeed in need of honoring.
“People put their lives on the line so that tonight we can sit in this room in a multiracial group,” she said.
After Tutu’s speech, she stuck around for a few questions from those in attendance.
Maria Jose Hays, a mother of two, has grown up here in Pinellas County. A first generation Mexican American, she said she’s encountered racism all her life, but recently was involved in a situation where she felt overlooked and attributed it to racism.
Hays wanted to know how to handle these types of situations where she believed racism was occurring, but where she wasn’t sure others understood what message they were sending with their words or actions. Should she keep her poise, or scream it out?
“That is part of our daily experience,” said Tutu who feels being labeled is a small price to pay for flushing out inappropriate or racist remarks. “I’m tired of being quiet about it,” continued Tutu who thinks that the labels are often used to silence those wishing to break free of oppression.
“When I go into a situation where I know I’m going to get loud because I’m going to get angry, I walk in with: ‘Hi, I’m Naomi, angry black woman, Tutu. Let’s start the conversation.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman
Mayor Rick Kriseman was in attendance and presented Tutu with a key to the city.
This year’s sponsors for the 6th Annual Stand Against Racism Conference Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA) to the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church and All Children’s Hospital, who offered up their Education & Conference Center located at 701 4th St. S., St. Petersburg.