About 200 high school students from across Washtenaw County attended the Washtenaw County Youth Diversity Forum at the Eastern Michigan University College of Business Nov. 2.
Keynote speaker Eric Thomas, a motivational speaker, author, activist and minister, spoke about race as a continuing problem in America.
Sarena Shivers, assistant superintendent for Washtenaw Intermediate School District, introduced Thomas at the beginning of the forum. She said she first heard him speak last year in Lansing at Michigan State University.
“When I heard him, I said, ‘There is no way we cannot bring Mr. Thomas to Washtenaw County,’” Shivers said.
Thomas spoke about diversity still being a problem in America.
“We’re talking about it because as a country, people still can’t get over race,” he said.
Thomas talked about his past experiences, including how a Canadian white male will be friendlier than someone in America.
“He will talk to me like I’m a human, not a race,” he said. “It’s the craziest thing … I have to get accustomed to it … I’m not accustomed as an African-American male in America; I’m not accustomed to being treated as a human being. Now I’m not telling you that there are no white males my age or older who do it, but I’m talking about [how] culturally, it’s not done.”
Thomas’ racial experiences in America have been negative. A few weeks ago while driving with someone to Cleveland, Ohio as a consultant at Quicken Loans, Thomas said he slowed his vehicle down as he realized he was about to pass a police car. Shortly after passing them, two police cars pulled Thomas over, complaining he turned on his turn signal too late when switching lanes.
“So before we knew it, they’re asking us to get out of the car,” he said. “Before we knew it, they had dogs coming out.”
Officers thoroughly questioned Thomas about where he was heading, what he was doing, the address of where he was staying and what was in the packages in the back of the car, which contained copies of Thomas’ autobiography.
“I’ve been to other parts of the world, and I can’t explain it, but I wish you could feel what it feels like when someone comes up to you and they just treat you like a human being,” Thomas said.
Thomas spoke about the need to change the way America views race.
“It’s important … the experience I had in Canada, I hope my son will have [that] in America one day,” he said.
Thomas told forum members that despite progress in racial equality in the past two generations, discrimination still exists in college today.
“There are people at your school that are abusive because of somebody’s gender, somebody has a different perspective or different way of seeing the world,” he said. “There are people who are larger and smaller. There are people who play sports or don’t play sports. There are people who are not social. It’s your job to get people not to hate people because they are not like them.”