White rejects father's advice on life in America

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

- Part 4 in a Black History Month report

As a black teenager, Paul White had difficulty accepting his father's passive ways of dealing with discrimination. Paul thought his dad should be more aggressive in his business and social relationships.

To Paul, Clarence's gentle, polite demeanor made his dad seem weak and ineffectual in confronting the discrimination that was impacting their own and many others lives in negative ways.

On a visit to Clarence's family in Kentucky, Paul overheard a story about his dad as a young man. That story changed Paul's life forever.

"Dad was the oldest of six with three brothers and two sisters. His youngest brother was named Romy. While walking home from school one day when he was about 9 years old, a white girl passed Romy on the opposite sidewalk.

"A couple of hours later, five white boys showed up at the house with a baseball bat, but not to play baseball. They accused Romy of smiling at the white girl. They beat him in the head with the bat. Romy collapsed and fell into a coma on the front steps of his home. He died a few days later.

"In disbelief, I asked my dad, 'What did you do?' He said, 'The family didn't do anything. It happened so quickly, and then we were scared to call the police because, in those days, likely they would have done nothing. Or, if word got back, those boys might have returned to kill someone else or burn us out of our home. So, we didn't do anything.'

"At that moment, I decided that I had to get away from this country and find a gentler place, a more accepting place in the world. I wanted to get as far away from the Midwest as possible.

"Sensing my turmoil, my dad said to me, 'You know, Son, in life things happen beyond your control sometimes. You must always try to take the negative things that happen to you, or around you, and change them for the good in some way. Always search for ways to convert negatives to positives.'"

"I probably did that unconsciously," Paul said. "But at that time, I could only think of getting away."

Paul won a four-year scholarship to college and chose California because that was as far away from the Midwest as he could get. When his father became ill, however, he transferred to Valparaiso University in Indiana where he received a degree in psychology and art.

Then he was awarded a two year scholarship for graduate school and he chose Hawaii because it was even further away. Paul majored in East Asian studies and Japanese in Hawaii. He later went to graduate school at Stanford where he majored in Social Change in the Third World.

"I spent my first years abroad in the International Voluntary Service (IVS), which was the organization that President Kennedy used to design the Peace Corps. With IVS I served in Laos and there I found the culture that I was looking for, one that was very tolerant and accepting. I also found a life-long companion in Laos, and Somphon Siriphot and I have been married for almost 40 years.

Tomorrow: Paul finds peace in a changed world.

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