CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) — A year ago, Scott Martin said he might have been the type of person to discount that someone was actually followed around in a store or harassed because they were of a certain race or ethnicity.
He said he would pick apart their stories, knowing that they must have done something to elicit heightened scrutiny or the perceived harassment.
But a year after spending time and having talks with people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, he said he has learned to not be so quick to dismiss their stories.
"I would say 'come on, you must have done something'," Martin said he once responded. "I've discontinued that . One of the things I'm' doing (differently now) is trying to listen to people's stories without discounting them. That's one of the things I've done, is try to listen more."
Martin and six other members of the Race Unity Group of Carbondale came together to share how they've been impacted in the year since the group formed. The Race Unity Group grew out of a need some people had to want to continue discussions about issues of race after the showing of the documentary "Racial Taboos."
The group has meet once a week since last February, talking about the difficult issues of race relations: They managed to talk through the all of the racial unrest in this country, including the bloody July 4th week that saw at least two unarmed black men shot and killed in traffic stops and the shooting of several police officers in Louisiana and Dallas.
They've also socialized together and visited each other's churches; recently, some met up to go and see the movie "Hidden Figures" about African American female mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s.
They talk to each other about various concerns and sometimes have guest speakers in to discuss various issues.
Being a part of the group has emboldened Sumera Makhdoom to invite to group meetings those she feels might benefit or could add to the discussions.
Barb Neafcy, one of those who helped pioneer the group, said she has long considered herself conscious of race relations, but ran into an uncomfortable moment during national dialogue over the Black Lives Matter versus the Blue Lives Matter movements. She'd walked into a bathroom where there were several African American women.
"I have always had an easy time with friends of all races — that's never been a problem for me," Neafcy shared with the group.
"And I felt for the first time, in eons, uncomfortable, because they felt, no doubt, uncomfortable, unsure, fearful, because they didn't know what to expect from me," she said. "I thought 'OK, there is a discomfort level here that I didn't expect to have'. They don't know me — they have every reason not to feel comfortable in my presence."
They've also learned what they can do to defeat racism, such as acting as "white allies," defined as those who take it upon themselves to renounce racism when they see it displayed or perpetuated.
Martin said he was encouraged that recently several white couples from throughout Southern Illinois came to the meeting for the first time, curious to know how they might work to resolve larger issues of divide. One recent meeting included a couple from Goreville and Benton.
They're saying "this may be a way that we can work in these issues" of race relations, Martin said.
One thing Fern Chappell, one of the people who initiated the initial screening of "Racial Taboos" in Carbondale, said she's looking forward to the group doing work with staff at Southern Illinois University.
One of the last ones to speak was Deb Martin, who sat in the middle of the group, an African American woman on either side of her and a Muslim woman within arm's reach.
She said when she looked around the living room where they were all seated, what she saw were "friends."
"That's what we've become," she said. "And that was why we started this group."
Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, http://bit.ly/2lfUQA2
Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com