Usually, an online post briefly galvanizes Internet dwellers before just as quickly dissipating until the next hot topic. But last fall, one post in a Hopewell area Facebook group generated hundreds of comments and the online chatter continued for more than a week.
In this case, the post concerned an incident earlier in the spring at Timberlane Middle School, when an African American student was called a racial slur.
Many online commentors expressed shock that such a thing could happen in town, but Renata Barnes, an African-American who grew up and later returned to Hopewell, was “surprised other people were surprised.”
After observing the online reaction and contributing a few responses herself, Barnes thought everyone could benefit from a community discussion about race and diversity. Floating the idea of an informal gathering, Barnes was amazed and encouraged at the outpouring of responses she received.
More than 100 people contacted her, and ultimately more than forty residents gathered together one October night in the basement of the Pennington Methodist Church. The informal event was organized with the help of pastor Dan Castelberry. There were also donations from local food vendors including Brothers Moon, Peasant Grill, Cugino’s, The Place, and Pennington Market.
The focus of the gathering was not on what happened at Timberlane, but on the community’s growing diversity and how to understand and resolve issues of race and culture.
“The goal was to find a place to have a real conversation, what it means to be black, Asian, what it means to be a white person of European descent,” Barnes said. “This is a difficult conversation. It’s an old conversation. You have to be willing to be offended and offend, and then work through that, move ahead.”
Another group discussion is scheduled for the end of February, and all residents are welcome.
Leading up to the first event, Barnes was initially concerned it would be used as an election stop for municipal officials. However, no elected officials or other clergy members attended, though the Timberlane principal was present.
Overall, the dialogue Barnes envisioned didn’t quite pan out.
“Trying to get people to talk was harder than I thought,” Barnes said. “I didn’t want it to end up becoming a presentation, or a personal soap box, but I did more talking than I wanted to.”
To encourage more dialogue at the next event, Barnes is thinking of having a theme of narratives, where attendees can share their view of events and experiences.
Why is race so difficult for everyone to talk about?
“I wish I knew why,” Barnes aid. “I think it’s because it’s ugly, that it causes discomfort. We ignore it and hope it goes away. Everybody’s got their baggage in this issue. You’ve got to be willing to sit down with someone and open up the luggage. I think people are afraid of what happens after that. They don’t want to be exposed as a racist, might not know they are a racist, or they just don’t talk about it.”
There is also the historical context of race, the sheer longevity of which might discourage meaningful conservation.
“Probably the most difficult thing is getting people of the majority to see the angst, the frustration of trying to continually live, work and thrive in a system that kind of diminishes the history,” Barnes said.
“If you can, imagine trying to carry a heavy weight of your back that you were born with and combating the expectations that are buried deep within those who have these images of people of color.”
Discussing the history is not intended to guilt any particular group. The inability to deal with the truth, with the past and its subsequent legacy, precludes any meaningful reconciliation with the current reality.
“Why is historical fact guilt? Why is my bringing it up viewed as some sort of attack?” Barnes said. “It’s like talking about Nazi Germany with a German. This is true and documented. We both are heirs to this. I was never a slave, and you were never a slave owner, but this is what the not to distant past has done for both of us.”
Added Barnes: “There’s too many people that can give you history. If there are enough voices in denial, or those who deny the veracity of the claims, it’s easy to cast doubt and say ‘oh these are race baiters.’
One historical fact Barnes points to is real estate redlining, which resulted in the systematic exclusion of blacks from suburban home ownership. In turn a whole generation missed out on postwar real estate appreciation. Across the Delaware River in Levittown, Pennsylvania blacks were for decades denied access. Nationwide, this housing policy contributed to today’s high density urban segregation.
“I’m always put in place of educator. People say, ‘Oh I didn’t know that.’ Well that’s because you didn’t have to know about,” Barnes said. “Police shootings have been in the news, but this isn’t news to people of color. Most black people have three degrees of separation of someone who has been harmed by police. Everyone I know knows somebody, or knows somebody who knows somebody, who has been disappeared. Growing up my mother emphasized to me, you comply with everything police say.”
Barnes emphasizes that conversations about race isn’t something one can opt out of, as the incident at Timberlane demonstrates. She adds that Donald Trump’s campaign characterizations of ‘the other’ further shows why being a spectator on national issues is an illusory luxury.
“It’s one of the conversations we have to have if we’re going to move on from where we are now. I don’t have all the answers, and it’s going to be uncomfortable,” Barnes said. “Eric Garner, Ferguson, it can easily happen in our community and then what are you going to do? I think if we just leave it alone, or it’s not our problem, or someone else will deal with it, I don’t want us to be caught off guard. If not you who? If not now when?”
In addition, there is a more personal reason: her son.
“Yes I’ll cop to that, I don’t want anything to happen to my son and I think about him when I hear about things happening nationwide,” Barnes said. “If we’re all looking out for each other that means everyone is going to be better off. For those whose race doesn’t matter as it were, they don’t see it as an issue. But the conversations I have with my son, I tell him, ‘don’t put your hood up.’ I have experienced what it’s like to be ‘the element,’ or ‘oh there goes the neighborhood,’”
Barnes grew up in Hopewell in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her father was a chef who passed away when Barnes was still in elementary school and her mother taught special education in Bordentown. Barnes’ mother grew up in segregated Virginia and attended Hampton University in the 1940s, a historically black college near Virginia Beach. She became an educator, and saw how education provided skills and opportunities.
“My mother grew up when there was so much she couldn’t do. That’s why she moved up here,” Barnes said.
However, Barnes does not have fond memories of her childhood in Hopewell. She says she was called racial slurs daily, and she remembers her family’s mailbox was blown up multiple times with M-80 firecrackers.
After finishing Hopewell Valley Central High School, Barnes couldn’t leave fast enough. She graduated from NYU and settled in New York City.
“Being a person of color in New Jersey is not the greatest experience. Being in the city, I needed that, to be in a place where I didn’t feel like an outsider, where my presence wasn’t questioned,” Barnes said. “It was nice to not stand out, you feel like you kind of belong.”
Working in film and entertainment production, Barnes has met too many celebrities to count. One of her most memorable projects was a four-day commercial shoot with B.B. King at a Queens studio. He performed a mini-concert and King’s friends and fans showed up, including Meryl Streep, Gloria Estefan, Angela Bassett and James Gandolfini, who was filming The Sopranos at the same studio.
Living in multicultural New York, Barnes had no plans to move back to Hopewell, but life happened quickly. The 9/11 attacks negatively affected the film industry. Barnes married in 2001 and a year after that gave birth to her son. Her mother died in 2005 and she actually wanted to sell her childhood home, but the pull of Hopewell’s school district and the difficulty of juggling a home in New Jersey and New York ultimately convinced Barnes to move back in 2008.
Barnes’ husband, who works in Princeton University’s IT department, grew up in the city and was interested in living in a rural environment, though Barnes herself had less enthusiasm.
“I didn’t want to come back,” Barnes said. “I didn’t want for my son what I had. I had lots of trepidation and I approached things very cautiously. I will fight tooth and nail to make sure no one treats him like that.”
When asked what “like that” means, Barnes said she did not want her son to be verbally abused, and she also was concerned the school district might place her son in a slower track because he was black, a practice which she says occurred when she was a student in Hopewell’s school district.
After moving to Hopewell she worked in ad sales in New York for a few years. She now produces in-house films for companies and writes about food.
While living in Hopewell is better than what her mother experienced, Barnes openly misses the city.
“Things went covert. People stopped saying the N-word, but attitudes didn’t go away,” Barnes said. “Things haven’t changed too much. What is overt has become covert. The attitude is, we don’t have that problem. Diversity isn’t a problem. They don’t see others as really from here. I’ve heard people say to me, ‘oh you’re so articulate.’ Why is that a shock? I didn’t want to see that happen to my son after seeing how it has weighed on me and infected how I see myself and my abilities.”
Asked for an example of how things haven’t changed, Barnes shares an account of a job interview at a Princeton real estate office. She says when talking to people on the phone, they do not know she is black, but when she showed up for an interview, dressed formally, the receptionist’s greeting was, “Our deliveries come through the back.”
“All she saw was the color,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t a good interview.”
When planning the first race and diversity forum, one recurring response Barnes received from members of the community was how they have wanted to talk about the issue for so long. She acknowledges a minority might have been needed to initiate, but she wonders why no one else has done so.
“I hear, thank you so much for doing this,” Barnes said. “It is not really a big deal, all I do is send some emails, get some food.”
To her surprise, she’s also been able to have candid conversations. This creates an opening for individual reflection and perhaps change.
“All the things you want, we want too. Why is it that when I show up, your vision becomes tainted, so to speak?”