Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Confronting Racism

BOND: Dr. Height, do you have a different style of leadership when you're dealing with groups that are black or white or mixed?

HEIGHT: I don't have a different style, but I do this -- I try to carry, wherever I am, the same message. But I've learned long ago that I don't have to spell out for most black people what the problems are. I have to spell out the direction we're trying to move and the like. But I find that despite all that we have worked on -- and you have to bear in mind I've spent forty years working in an organization that was interracial, but whose membership was predominantly white -- and I learned that I gain the respect and appreciation and acceptance of my leadership the more I was the same person that I was ever.

I never found that compromising on my goals was profitable, was valuable. I always had the same goal. I might adapt the message so that it could get understood. And when I get mail today of women who read about me in the paper, and they say, "I want you to know how you changed my life. You opened my eye," that -- and those are predominantly white women -- then I realize that you have to be yourself. And you have to --

And people knew that what I was saying -- I remember the time that, in the Boston convention, one of the board members came to me and she said, "You know, we have been doing so well working on race relations, and now you're talking about racism." And she said, "That sounds so terrible," and so forth.

And she said -- and I said, "Well, let me put it to you this way. When we were talking about interracial relations, we were talking so much about building bridges between people of different races. We're now past that." I said, "Racism is so deeply embedded in our history, beginning with slavery, that we now have to ask ourselves, why did we need the bridges? We have to look at the underlying cause. And that is because it has nothing to do with your being prejudiced or my being prejudiced. It's in the system in which we live." And I said, "And therefore, that's why we have to now call it racism, for what it is, and still work on interracial activities. But that should not be a goal -- that's just a process. That's just a step. And every time someone says to you, ‘We're building the bridges,' we want to make sure we know why they are necessary."

And I just use that as an illustration, because I think it's the same message, but I wouldn't have to tell -- well, I might have to tell some black women that -- but I'm just saying that was the difference. Because it was painful to think now we were saying to people the society is racist, and everyone, they began to say, "Well, I'm not." And I have to say back to them, "You don't have to be. It operates whether you know it or not. The banking system, the housing system, the employment system, everything around you, it operates. If affects me as it affects you. It affects you as it affects me. The difference is, you are in a different power position from I, because you belong to the majority group." So I think that I would say the message has to be the same.