When a Reasonable Guy Tells You You’re a Racist

Bill Wynne of Fairport writes book to help people wake up to their racism and start working to change their views on race

By John Addyman

Wynne’s book was published in 2021. it has opened doors to new relationships for Bill and Sandy, according to Bill.

What does Bill Wynne want, anyway?

He’s a mild-mannered enough guy. He’s been a telecommunications executive and consultant. Lived in Rochester and downstate. Raised three kids. He and wife, Sandy, (both 76) have been married for almost 50 years. Very busy all his life in Catholic church support and leadership roles. Sandy, too.

But inside, Bill is teeming.

He’s got a message for you and it’s strong stuff, especially if you happen to be white and were raised like a lot of the rest of us were — not recognizing the comfort of our whiteness and blissfully unaware of the reality of other races we’ve quietly and pervasively suppressed.

Wynne’s aware. And in groups large and small, here and elsewhere, he is helping people wake up to their racism and start working to change their view of their fellow man.

“My personal view of white privilege as created out of white supremacy, especially white male supremacy, is that it encumbers all white people in this country to one degree or another, whether they are aware of it or not,” Wynne writes in his autobiography. “Understanding and Combating Racism: My Path from Oblivious American to Evolving Activist,” published in 2021.

He had asked himself to remember the exact moment when he realized he was white.

“I honestly do not know because my privilege never allowed it to surface,” he said.

The unfairness of the way other races are treated, the instilled attitudes and visible and destructive components of racism, gnawed at Wynne. It was all something he couldn’t understand — the roots, the mechanisms, the secrets and manifestations.

So, he studied.

He admits he read a stack of books that reached the ceiling. He looked for answers in his faith, completing the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain and right now, working through the 30-week retreat known as the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. If he’s going to help people — and that’s his internal charge — he had to know himself thoroughly first.

Wynne is the kind of kid every Catholic parent dreams about. He’s a McQuaid High School grad and went straight to St. Bonaventure University. He rose through the ranks of the Rochester Telephone Co. Found a great wife and built a family.

When phone deregulation caused turmoil, he got his MBA at the University of Rochester and ran operations and customer service at several phone companies downstate — Frontier, Global Crossing, Citizens and Frontier again. Leaving that life in 1995 to become a consultant, he then worked for a startup (VoiceWeb), then back to consulting with HPA Consulting.

Then a big change after 10 more years.

“The new president of McQuaid was someone I worked with at the phone company,” Wynne explained. “He asked me, ‘Why don’t you apply for my old job as vice president of advancement?’ I took it. I did fundraising and alumni relations and we raised a lot of money.”

When his friend left McQuaid, Wynne found a new position as executive director of Monroe County Cornell Cooperative Extension. His experience in working operations and customer care came in handy.

And then he got back to his volunteering roots and in the Rochester diocese, wound up as director of development at the Catholic Family Center.  He retired from there in 2014 and he and Sandy got interested in Roc ACTS, an alliance for communities trying to transform society.

“They were just getting up and running, an alliance of two dozen or better churches and affiliated organization that grouped together to work on racial and social justice advocacy. Sandy and I both went to their organization celebration. I knew about this from someone at the Catholic Family Center who was one of the originators of getting this organization off the ground.

“For almost 40 years I was a professional, serving on board governance committees. Now I wanted to get more hands-on, more participative in the community. I didn’t want to be on the board of Roc ACTS, but I had to start somewhere,” he said. “The pastor of Church of Assumption had appointed me a delegate to Roc ACTS, and that’s how I got on the board. I was automatically part of it as a delegate.”

Wynne didn’t rest heavily on that board.

“I quickly abdicated my role,” he said. “I was directed toward a program they had instead, Sacred Conversations. It developed quickly.”

He and Sandy went to special classes and were trained to be facilitators of Sacred Conversation sessions. They baptized the program with a first group composed of about 20 white members of the Church of Assumption and 20 Black congregants from the Elim Bible Church in Rochester.

“We still talk about that to this day,” Wynne said. “We heard stuff in that program that was incredible.”

Sandy is a Tully Central High School graduate and went on to Cobleskill State to study secretarial science.

“I can still remember my dad, who owned a family business that is still in existence, (hardware, lumber, more than 100 years old, six generations). Education was a big thing to my dad because he didn’t have it. I was doing it more for my dad, to make him proud of me. I had an incredible father,” she said. “I wanted to try to go off like my sister did. She was a school teacher. I was so unhappy at Cobleskill: I was just wasting my dad’s money. I knew he was working so hard to put me through school.”

She wound up at Carrier for five years, working as a secretary. When her first marriage broke up, she moved to Rochester, closer to old friends from Cobleskill and Tully. She found a new job at KPMG and a guy named Bill Wynne who asked for her phone number when they were both dating other people on a night at the Shakespeare Restaurant in Xerox Square.

To raise their children in one religion, Sandy converted to Catholicism without any pressure from Bill and got immersed in all the committee work and associations she could. She and Bill would do sacrificial giving talks together, a role that prepared them for the work they’re doing now.

Sacred conversations

When Bill and Sandy decided to work with the Sacred Conversations program, they attended training to learn how to present the program.

“We got into things very deeply in terms of the guts and depth of the program. It was huge in terms of what we learned. It wasn’t so much book-reading, it was the relationships that were established and the discussions we had,” he said.

And when the programs began, the results were immediate.

“You wouldn’t think you’d be able to imagine in eight short hours all the things we shared together because we got so close,” he said. “We showed our vulnerability, especially our Black friends, our friends of color. They opened up and shared things with us we had never, ever heard.”

Wynne shared some of the stories that gave white participants pause.

“One woman, who is now in her 60s, told us about something that happened in the 1950s in the Deep South. She was at a store, and she didn’t say ‘Sir’ or “Ma’am’ to the person who was making the transaction, who happened to be white. Someone observed that, a family member and immediately went to the young girl’s family to tell them, ’You have a problem.’ The family literally put the girl on a train north to Rochester that night to save her.”

Sandy Wynne had her own reaction after that first Sacred Conversations session.

“That first one we did, I remember saying, ’This experience has changed my life because I’m not the same person I was when I came in here because of the things I’ve learned.’ It just opened up a whole new world to me that I didn’t realize was out there. It was just an amazing experience and it has been ever since then because of the things we keep learning and growing with the people who are now in our lives.

“We’re not trying to change anybody in what we might be talking about. We feel like if you can open it up to have to conversation and dialogue with one another; you might just go away with something you didn’t know before. You might leave with a new perspective because of what we’re sharing. I might think, ‘Wow, I hadn’t thought of that before.’”

The new awareness from what she learned in the sessions gobsmacked her.

“You just sit there with your mouth open,” she admitted. “I’m a very emotional woman. I really cry when people would tell their stories. At one session, a woman said, ‘We don’t want your tears, we want you to try to understand and just see us, see us for who we are.’ We are all created equal in the image of God. Seeing one another as different — handicapped, colored, whatever it is — is not as it should be. We are all just as equal in his love in God’s eyes.”

Since the start of Sacred Conversations, Wynne has spread out to offer many individual courses and experiences he’s designed for people to share their feelings about racism. He’s had some interesting one-on-one discussions.

“I had lunch with a good friend. He told me, ‘Bill, I know there’s racism, but I don’t believe it.’ I told him, ‘That’s a contradiction,’” he said.

“Black folk, they get it,” Wynne continued. “They want to know, ‘What are you? Let’s just talk about what you are. Let’s just listen. But don’t say that you don’t see color. That’s just purely offensive to a Black person.

“If you say, ‘I don’t see color’ to a Black person, they say, ‘Wait a minute – that’s who I am.  As a Black person, that’s my authentic self. And you don’t see me?’ All of a sudden you’re in the framework of a whole different conversation.”

Sandy has been involved with an Eritrean refugee family — a single mom and five kids — since 2016. That relationship started out fully supported by aid from the Catholic Family Center. Then everything stopped.

“You’re done at the end of six months,” explained Bill. “See ya, goodbye. God bless you and God bless America. Get your citizenship and keep us posted. That could never work with this family.”

So Sandy took over as the chief volunteer and is still involved seven years later.

And this is where the Wynnes have evolved. Bill’s anti-racism stance has deepened, but he realizes that change is not going to come from on-high. Not in this version of America.

“The top-down things, all the muckety-mucks get together and talk about their programs, but it doesn’t trickle down,” he said. “What does bubble up is when you get the grassroots going, there’s a lot of power in that; a lot of power. And it can be harnessed and collected. Maybe that’s where prophetic leadership — telling truth to power — can come from.”

He emphasizes that he’s just one voice when change needs a chorus.

“There are a lot of voices out there more than mine. I’m just a little drip in the bucket. It isn’t just me. That’s why I’m talking in my presentations. The message I’m bringing is moving toward prophetic leadership, it means being able to talk about complex subjects in a simple way,” he said. “People think that some things are complex but maybe they’re not all that complex. If you look at it as simple as ‘What can one person do.’ I tell them, I’m just one person. Why don’t you go a Black church once in a while? I’ll go with you. There are many ways you can learn. Go to a program. Meet and talk to people.”

Wynne wrote his book to describe his journey from being a whiter-than-a-bottle-of-milk guy to someone who knows he’s just part of the tapestry of America and there’s a lot to learn and share with the colors surrounding him.

The book has opened doors to new relationships for Bill and Sandy.

He’s being pressed by close friends to write a second and third volume.

As busy as they are, the Wynnes also know the time they have ahead of them is finite, so, they formed the Wynne-Strauss Fund for Social and Racial Justice in 2018 to provide grants through the end of the century to support anti-racism programs. Proceeds from the book go into that fund.

Rev. Julius Jackson Jr., senior pastor of the United Church of Pittsford, said we need more people like Bill Wynne, and his efforts.

“The world is bigger than just Black and white,” he said. “There are all kinds of other people who are in and out of marginalization — Jewish, Palestinian, Native Americans — there are all kinds of people catching hell from some groups somewhere. Bill may not have all the correct answers, but he’s out there creating dialogue, and that’s important.”


More Info?

Bill Wynne has programs coming up on Jan 17 at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble at 6:30 p.m., at the Asbury First United Methodist Church in January, and at Mount Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Community in March. His website is www.wewynneauthor.com and his book is listed on Amazon.