“I didn’t tell you . . .” Reflections on race through poetry and research

Norma Johnson

Norma Johnson looks on; pleased at the audience participation in her interactive exercise

Boulder-based Poet and Social Justice Activist, Norma Johnson opened NOAA Boulder’s observance of “Black History” month with her moving poem, “I didn’t tell you . . .” The crowded conference room, abuzz with NOAA employees and guests from the community turned stone silent at Johnson’s powerful and moving performance. “This poem was a cry from my heart to speak on a deeper level to my white friends and to attempt to relay to them that because of race, there is a palpable difference in the way our daily lives play out,” explained Johnson. Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes in preparation, she then delivered an emotional poem that left the audience momentarily speechless. The poem, one in a collection of Poems for My White Friends, “is intended to move and inspire through the wisdom and a vision that already lives within each of us,” according to Johnson, who seeks “to connect individuals and community back to the heart-centered place, where all vision lives.”

After reciting her poem, Johnson invited the audience to pair off with someone they don’t usually talk to and tell each other how the poem made them feel. The volume rose again as people had an animated discussion about what they had just heard—thought provoking stanzas like:

“I didn’t tell you that my stomach clenches when I see a police car because it means I may not…be…safe,” or

“I didn’t tell you about the white woman I passed at twilight in the park, who tensed her body, tightened her grip on her purse and walked a large curved detour past me,” or

“I didn’t tell you about my day because I had been taught not to. And you have been taught not to even consider it.”

Attendees Attendees
An animated audience discusses how they felt after Johnson’s powerful poetry reading.
Hillary Potter

Dr. Potter of CU talking about the impacts of disasters on race.

Norma Johnson’s exercise set the tone for the next featured speaker, Hillary Potter, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at CU Boulder. Dr. Potter’s research focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and class as they relate to crime and violence—a logical outcome of her degrees in both Sociology and Criminal Justice. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I became interested in what I had observed on television and in other media coverage of the disaster,” said Potter.

She traveled to a New Orleans shelter, and as a ‘participant observer’ studied the social impact of this natural disaster on the way society is set up, especially for people of color and low socio-economic status. She also traveled to other city communities where excessive force resulted in citizen protests in the wake of social disasters such as the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Jokingly, Potter was called a “disaster chaser” among colleagues because she sought them out to observe.

Potter’s studies showed that implicit bias (bias that resides deep in the subconscious) is prevalent in policing, that domestic violence rises in couples after natural disasters, and natural disasters brings about judicial reform in the criminal legal system. Potter has authored numerous articles and books and edited Racing the Storm: Racial Implications and Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina that speaks to the topic presented.

Event presenters and organizers

Key presenters and behind-the-scenes organizers, Al Romero (NOAA), Ray Stewart (NOAA),Norma Johnson (Presenter), Wilford Buggs (BIG), Georgia Madrid (NOAA),Hillary Potter (Speaker), Eric Kihn (NOAA), Alisa Young (NOAA).

NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) EEO/Diversity Office, Boulder Labs Diversity Council, and Boulder County (BIG) sponsored the event that was webcast to OAR staff. The speakers’ parting message, expressed by Norma Johnson, was “seize this juicy momentum of sharing and talking about race—carry it with you and keep talking so you’ll act differently.” That can bring about real change.