WNY Conversations About Race: Ron Stewart and Kevin Heffernan

Jul 26, 2020

It's automatic for Ron Stewart to define white privilege, with any number of concrete, vivid examples of what it means for him and his children.

Dr. Ron Stewart, Sociology Chair, SUNY Buffalo State

"White privilege affords whites opportunities on all levels. And those same opportunities would not be afforded to me, " says Stewart, the chairman of the sociology department at SUNY Buffalo State.  

Kevin Heffernan knows white privilege exists and can provide a definition off the top of his head-- but freely admits that for him as a white man, it's much more of an intellectual exercise.

"I was raised to be as empathetic as possible, and I think it is still a challenge for me to put myself in the shoes of African Americans, especially African American men, " says Heffernan, the managing director of Rise Collaborative in Buffalo and the publisher of its No Boundaries magazine.

Stewart and Heffernan shared their thoughts on their upbringing, the challenges they have faced, and what white privilege means to them as part of WBFO's series WNY Conversations About Race. 

The 5-part radio series includes Black and white activists, clergymen, educators and business people talking about racism, empathy and diversity in Western New York on-air this week, with extended versions of those edited  conversations available online each day or as a bonus afternoon edition of the WBFO Brief podcast. 


For Stewart, it's  easy to express  risks faced by his son and daughter.

" People don't understand. You have no idea. (You) haven't had the talk with not only your sons, but you haven't had  to have the talk with your daughters too, because racial hatred and intolerance doesn't allow for gender distinction," he adds referencing the discussion that almost every African-American parent has had with their children, on how to act if they are ever stopped by police.

Stewart can also readily recall the graphic, profane, hate-filled letter he received from a neighbor when he moved into the Elmwood Village and wrote publicly about race. It remains so vivid for him he can still cite passages 30-years later.

(Hear Stewart's letter in the extended interview segment at the bottom of this page)

Or he's just as likely to talk of the time he -like so many African Americans- was stopped by police for no apparent reason other than "driving while black" in a whiter neighborhood.

"You know, I can't drive my car in Amherst, New York any time of the night, without the thought of not being pulled over by a police officer, searched and stuff like that. And I'm talking from personal experiences. I'm a college professor. They literally took the spare tire out and lifted up the thing in the trunk and all that kind of stuff."

As easy as it is for Stewart to illustrate white privilege with an example from his own life-- the discussion is understandably  little more abstract for  Heffernan.

"I think  where my misunderstanding comes from is not knowing what that experience feels like," he says.

Kevin Heffernan, Managing Director, Rise Collaborative and "No Boundaries" magazine
Credit courtesy Kevin Heffernan

Despite that, his definition of white privilege is fairly close to Stewart's.

"I think if you're asking for what it means to me, I think it's a simple definition would be that you know as a white person you may experience success or failure in life but your skin color is not really one of those obstacles that stands in the way of either of those destinations as it is so often for our friends and peers of color," he says.

Heffernan grew up in West Seneca, went to a private Catholic grade school and had his first real contact with people of color in high school where he says only 1 out of about every 100 students was Black.  He admits that he has benefited by his whiteness, in ways that are less recognizable to him and certainly less visceral than they are to Stewart- who had two siblings arrested during race riots in 1971 as they tried to protest segregation at their high school in Mobile Alabama.

"I would call myself racist and I think anyone, any white person who says they are not, is lying. And I think you know, if there is a spectrum of zero to 100, maybe I'm still in the 30s. And it's something that I'm working on to fix. But there are so many norms that I grew up in from entertainment media and news media that, you know, inadvertently has me associate black people with poverty or with violence and things like that. And that leads to unconscious choices I make that do no one any good, even if it's for me or my business, everyone ends up losing with those sorts of things.

"So I think recent events, as well as just how I've changed in my professional and personal experiences over the last few years have helped me take an outsider's look in the way I perceive things and realize I've got a lot of work to do,” Heffernan says.

Stewart thinks that’s a start.

"We all have to look introspectively at ourselves and what we can do To become better people as it relates to race, we all can do something in terms of improving ourselves. And then if you improve the collectivity, then I think as a whole all of us, then I think society would be a much better place. 

The WBFO Racial Equity Project is funded by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. If you'd like to participate in future conversations, email news@wbfo.org