Debora Johnson-Ross

Debora moved to Carroll County to teach at McDaniel College in the fall of 2001. She is originally from South Carolina. She shares about the differences between South Carolina and the small town, Carroll County.


INTERVIEWER: Hi, I’m Jason, and joining me today is Dr. Johnson-Ross. It is April 9, 2010. With me on camera is [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you, Dr. Johnson-Ross, for being with us today and sharing your memories.

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Uh, Dr. Johnson-Ross, I understand that you have not always lived in Carroll County? Uh, so the first question is when did you first move to Carroll County? And where did you live before you came here to McDaniel College?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: OK. I moved to Carroll County, um, actually to come teach at McDaniel in the fall of 2001. So I actually moved here in, uh, I think it was August, early August, just a couple of weeks before school started.

And I moved from Spartanburg, South Carolina, um, where– I, I’m originally from South Carolina. I’m not from the Spartanburg area. Um, I’m from a little town called Holly Hill. But I had lived in Spartanburg for about three years, where I taught at Wofford College.

INTERVIEWER: So how does Carroll County compare to Spartanburg County, South Carolina?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: (LAUGHING) They’re very different. Um, Carroll County is still predominantly a rural county, I would say. Um, and in terms of the way the people interact and in terms of the politics, it’s a fairly, fairly conservative, um, and I would say, highly religious area.

Um, Spartanburg County, South Carolina is also fairly conservative and highly religious, but it’s a much more industrialized area than Carroll County. Um, so– and it’s a fairly wealthy part of South Carolina. So it’s a very different sort of mix of people and ways of interacting with people.

INTERVIEWER: When you first moved to Carroll County, what kind of expectations did you have? Did you think it would be similar to Spartanburg or different? What kind of expectations did you have?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Well, to tell you the truth, I really didn’t think a whole lot about the county itself, because at the time, I was really more focused on the school. And so the institution that I left, Wofford College, is very similar to, uh, what was Western Maryland at the time.

So the institutions were very similar. And it wasn’t really until I moved to Carroll County that I really started to think about, whoa, (LAUGHING) where– where am I now? Because I had very interesting interactions with people.

At that particular time, even though it was already, you know, past 2000, there weren’t that many African American professionals at McDaniel. Um, not to say there weren’t African American professionals in the county and in Westminster. But, um, I think that there were times when people were sort of taken aback by me being an African American woman professor.

And so that sort of colored my interactions in Carroll County. So I didn’t have any real expectations, um, but clearly, there were some underlying expectations that got, uh, sort of disruptive once I moved here.

INTERVIEWER: And did your friends and family back home, how did they feel– how did they take you moving to Carroll County? Did they support your decision?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Yeah, well, you know–

INTERVIEWER: Or maybe were they skeptical?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: They were– they didn’t know any– most people I knew– Oh, I actually only had one friend who knew much about Carroll County, and that was really based on her, uh, work as, um, a deaf education specialist. So she was familiar with the deaf education program here.

Um, so people were really– you know, when people aren’t familiar with an area, they don’t know whether or not they should support it or not. They didn’t have any preconceived notions about Carroll County. And actually, most people were excited for me, because they knew I was going to be close to, um, the DC and Baltimore metro area. So that, in a way, was sort of exciting.

INTERVIEWER: And when you first moved here, could you please describe the nature of, uh, Carroll County in terms of racial diversity, the neighbors, schools, businesses, things of that nature?


INTERVIEWER: Was there any discrimination racially going on?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Well, let me say, um, there’s very little diversity. I think the statistic that I was given at the time was probably about 3% to 4%, um, population of color, of any color, so very little diversity in the county, um, which was readily apparent to me as I, you know, interacted with people and shopped and things like that.

I didn’t experience much overt racism as much as, um, discomfort in certain areas and people who were curious about me. So, for instance, I actually– I mean, I was really surprised in, you know, late 2000, I had, uh, a couple of instances, where people asked to touch my hair, because it was natural. And they weren’t accustomed to seeing, um, someone of color with natural hair.

Um, I had a couple of people who seemed a little confused by the fact that I worked at McDaniel. And when I would say I was a professor, um, they would question that. And they would say, um, what did you say you did at McDaniel again? And I’d say, oh, I’m a professor. I’m a political scientist.

And it seemed like they– they weren’t ready to, um, to accept that information about me. So I wouldn’t say that that was really overt discrimination or overt racism.

I think if I said to those people that the comments they made or the questions they asked me were racist, they would probably be upset, because that wasn’t their intent. But, uh, but clearly there was a level of discomfort.

INTERVIEWER: So would you say that these people in Carroll County, they– would they– would you say they accepted you? Or would you say that they were a little, you know, skeptical of you being– having a position as a professor in the college, you know?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: I think that they accepted me, um, because of my position at the college. I think that if I was not affiliated with– with McDaniel, um, I may have had a more difficult time being accepted in the community.

And it– it’s clear to me that there are people who, um, who I developed relationships with since that time, um, that those relationships are very much professional and very much based on my status as a professor.

And then it’s sort of, they’ve come to know me as a person after, uh, after sort of accepting my affiliation with the college. But if I had not been affiliated with the college, I’m not sure that they would have wanted to get to know me as a person.

INTERVIEWER: So do you believe that the people here, they had preconceived notions about you based solely on the color of your skin?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Absolutely. (LAUGHING) Yeah. There is no question about that. They saw a black woman with natural hair.

Um, oftentimes, I would be wearing, um, not necessarily African attire, but something that would be– that– that you might consider to be affiliated with things African, like cowry shells, um, and those kinds of things.

And so, um, I think it was clear to me that people had a certain set of preconceived notions that, that went with my appearance and my presentation.

INTERVIEWER: And how did that– that judgment, I mean, how did that make you feel? Did it anger you?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: It didn’t anger me, but I think that was mostly because, um, I have dealt with that before in other places. I actually dealt with that when I moved to– to Spartanburg. Because even though Spartanburg is much more cosmopolitan than Carroll County, there’s– at the time I moved there, there weren’t that many, um, African American professionals.

And actually, I was only the, um, second black woman professor at Wofford College, when I went there. So, um, I had dealt with that. And, um, not to get into a whole long history, but, um, but I’m a military brat. My father was in the army. And in many of the places we lived, we would be the only, um, black family.

So I’ve actually been dealing with that all my life. So I– I won’t say that I was angered. I understood it. I wasn’t necessarily happy about it, because I sort of figured, OK, it’s the 21st century. And, uh, there’s a– there’s a lot of diversity.

But the county itself really was not diverse. So I don’t– I wasn’t really in a position to be angry. Um–

INTERVIEWER: So would you say that your past experiences, they’ve kind of prepared you for this– this is kind of environment here?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Yes. Um, you know, when you– when you’ve had the kind of experiences that I’ve had, you become, um, an accidental educator, whether you choose to be or not. In my professional life, I choose to be an educator. In my personal life, I– I’m not always in the position of having to be an educator.

But when I came to Carroll County, when I leave this campus, or when I left this campus at the time, I was an educator, whether I wanted to be or not. And that’s just the way that I sort of handled that situation.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So have any of– any of your friends or family, uh, experienced any racial discrimination that you’ve heard about in Carroll County?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Um, not family members, because I don’t have family members here with me. Well, actually, let me take that back. Um, my son– many years ago, my son did have, um, a situation, where he was sitting in a public park here in Carroll County.

And he was approached by– he was sitting in the park reading. And, um, a policeman approached him to ask what he was doing and to ask for his identification. Um, and he was clearly not disturbing the peace or doing anything to sort of prompt that.

And I’ve had other– um, I’ve had students, uh, who have come back and reported some incidents that seemed to be racial in terms of the– the motivation, so yes.

INTERVIEWER: So do you believe there’s less racial discrimination now, than there was when you first moved here?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Yes. I think the environment has changed quite a bit since I first moved here. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but it’s definitely, um, improved.

INTERVIEWER: Uh, what about McDaniel College? Do you think it’s become more racially diverse in the past years?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: It– It’s more racially diverse. There’s still some gaps in terms of, um, looking at diversity as a– as a range, or as sort of a holistic process. Um, we have very few students who identify themselves as Native American.

Um, we– I– I think when you– if– if the ideal or the standard that the institution wants to reach is to be able to model the– the amount of diversity in the society as a whole, um, we– we don’t have the numbers we should have of students of Latino, um, heritage.

Um, and we don’t have the numbers we used to have of international standards. So there are some gaps. We’re more diverse than we were, if you’re looking only at, uh, African American students. But when you begin to look at diversity as a range, we– we don’t have the– the amount of diversity that I think would be good for students at this type of institution.

INTERVIEWER: So why– why do you think that there’s not a lot of racial diversity here on campus? Is it the environment in Carroll County? Or is it the actual campus that, you know, can be the factor?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: I– I actually think it’s a combination– combination of both. I think that when a student who, um, lives a distance away gets information about McDaniel College, and they see– excuse me– what our academics look like, what our extracurricular activities look like, this looks like a very inviting place.

But when they come to visit, um, the way we market ourselves may not match, um, the– the reality that a visiting student sees. And, um, so they come on campus, and they may or may not see students or staff who look like them or people, um, with whom they make a connection.

And I think that’s important. When students are choosing an institution, they want to see someone that they think they can have some kind of relationship with. And then if they leave the campus and go into the community, if they just happen to go to a business establishment, where they don’t feel welcome, that’s not going to help the school in terms of recruiting.

So I think it’s sort of a combination of the two. I don’t think we can clearly say it’s one or the other. And I– I think that, uh, depending on the kind of student that is visiting, um, they may or may not feel that their needs would be met if they came here to study.

INTERVIEWER: So would you say it was– it’s– it’s, uh, more of like a culture shocked compared to what they have been– where they grew up?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: If– If a student is coming from a large urban center– I’ve got students who come from Boston.

Actually, I’ve got, um, majority students who’ve come here and felt that it wasn’t diverse enough, because they came from a– a very rich, um, environment, that, you know, that was very rich in diversity and went to high schools where, um, they had classmates who were from 100 different countries and that kind of thing.

And so, um, this place can be a culture shock, depending on where the student comes from, so yes.

INTERVIEWER: And, uh, what kind of hopes do you have for the college in the future, in terms of racial diversity, things of that nature?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Yeah. Actually, I see a lot of potential. Um, I don’t know if you’ve spoken to anyone who can talk about the Teagle Diversity Project that we’re working on.

We have a grant from the Teagle Foundation. And that grant is allowing us to assess our diversity initiatives. So this past year, um, we were visited by a group from Ursinus College that did a series of focus groups, talked with students, faculty, and staff. And, um, we’re using that to put together a series of, um, proposals for actions that the college can take to help support diversity.

Um, we have in place a new campus Diversity Council. And it’s that counsel’s job, um, to have some oversight of the diversity initiatives that are taking place on campus. And that includes acting as an advisory group to the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.

Um, so I think what we can say is that the college has become much more intentional about looking at diversity issues and thinking about how we can improve, um, our status in terms of diversity. And that’s something that wasn’t done intentionally when I first arrived.

So I think looking at diversity intentionally and working to improve, um, all aspects of diversity, um, means that in the long run this will be a better place for– for all of the people who are a part of the McDaniel community.

INTERVIEWER: And do you expect Carroll County itself to change at all racially– uh, in terms of diversity? Or is it, do you think, it’s just going to be the college that changes?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: I think the college is going to change before the community. And I think the college has a responsibility to act as a leader. You know, this is a place that has a lot of influence in terms of what’s happening in the community.

Um, but I also see that the community is changing whether they want to or not. For instance, if you look at the growth in the Latino population, that’s not something that the– um, that Carroll County itself has a lot of control over. That’s an economic process.

So just by the mere fact of having more Latino families move into the community, it means that the community is going to have to adjust in some ways. You can’t have a significant population move in and then just sort of ignore that population. So the county is going to have to change.

Um, whether it’s by, um, force, or whether it’s by, you know, just sort of a– a natural process, we’ll see. But I– I expect that the college will actually probably move much more quickly in that direction, because it’s an intentional process with the college.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel that the general population of Carroll County, that they welcome change in terms of diversity? Or do you think that they are a little bit afraid to change their culture?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: I think any society as a whole, uh, resents change, or it does not welcome change. (LAUGHING) So I think there are, um, constituencies or pockets in terms of people in the community, who appreciate change and see how that might benefit the community as a whole.

But I also think that there are stronger forces at work that, um, would prefer to keep things the way they are. Um, but, you know, the more that– I mean, I think economics plays an important role in this.

And the more that Carroll County– I mean, Carroll County is, um, for all intents and purposes, a bedroom community for Washington, DC, and Baltimore County, Baltimore City now. So the more that that happens, the– the more the county is going to have to, uh, adjust a little bit. And that change is– is coming.

INTERVIEWER: So, uh, you said that Carroll County was sort of a suburb of Baltimore City, Washington, DC. And, uh, for example, Howard County is in the same boat. And they are, uh, really racially– racially diverse. So–


INTERVIEWER: So why do you think that was, how Carroll County stayed, you know, predominantly white and other counties, like Howard County were able to change a lot sooner?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Howard County is closer to Washington, DC. That’s my simple answer. Um, Carroll County, just geographically, is a little bit farther away. So when you look at the process of urbanization, that tends to start at the urban center and creep out.

So Carroll County is a little bit farther away. Um, but I don’t think Carroll County is going to be able to escape that change. It’s– It’s definitely here. You can see it in the price of, um, the cost of living. Price of housing, price of food, uh, you can definitely see the– the influence of being, um, now being a part of that– that urban center, whether we like it or not.

Or look at the traffic, all you have to do is look at the– there are lots of people who live in Carroll County, who work in Baltimore or work in DC and come back to Carroll County at home. Those– that influence has to be felt here.

INTERVIEWER: Uh, I understand that during 2006 and 2007, uh, you lived in Cameroon, Africa.


INTERVIEWER: How has that experience changed your perspective?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Hm. That’s a hard question, Jason. Uh, you know, living in, um, Africa– or living in Cameroon– let me be specific, because Cameroon is very different than many other African, um, countries in terms of society.

But living there gave me, um, an opportunity to appreciate some of the things that I have here in the United States. But it also really made me appreciate being out of the country for a while. I think I gained a better appreciation for, uh, time or un– un-constructed time, I might call it, um, appreciation for fresh food, fresher food.

Um, and it gave me a different way of looking at people. Because in the United States, we’re so socialized to, um, to– in a way, to make judgments about people based on physical attributes, and– that– that are related to race or ethnicity. So, um, in most African societies, people do make, um, judgments about other people, but they’re not based on race. They’re based on other factors.

So as an outsider, it just made me think. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on how we look at those around us and, um, the basis on which we sort make decisions about who people are. It made me less willing to make judgments about people just based on outward appearance.

INTERVIEWER: OK. OK, Dr. Johnson-Ross, that’s all I have for you today. Uh, do you have any– anything else to add that wasn’t covered in this, uh, discussion?

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: No, I think we actually covered quite a bit.

INTERVIEWER: OK, thanks again, Dr. Johnson-Ross, for sharing your memories with us today.

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: Thank you, Jason. Thank you, [INAUDIBLE].