Recently I’ve seen people I know and people I love discuss race and racism. Much of what has been said has saddened me–some has inspired me, all of it has made me think about my own history with race and racism. Many people have said we should just stop talking about race. I don’t know how we solve anything that we don’t talk about. So, I’ve decided to talk about some of my experiences with racism.
I grew up in a small town in Idaho. Everyone I knew made jokes about Mexicans at church, at school, at work everywhere. Today, in the county where I grew up 13% of the population is Latino. I don’t know what the percentage was when I lived there almost thirty years ago, but I imagine it was similar. I did not have one friend who was Latino. I went to school with students I never really talked to. I lived in a community that was culturally segregated. I look back now and wonder how it’s possible that I never had any friends whose families were from Mexico. I knew some people, and can even remember some names, but I never knew anyone well. I never attended a birthday party or hung out with one Latino person–never, not one. I was not comfortable with racists jokes, but I never stopped them either. I never stopped for one minute to consider what it must have been like to be Latino in my home town. I enjoyed a white privilege I didn’t even know I had.
In college I was exposed to Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, freedom riders, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, the Alien and Sedition act, Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, the trail of tears, reconstruction, Jim Crowe, and so much more. It felt like a different world. It was like someone opened a door to a room I didn’t know existed. It was in college that I joined the Black Student Association. This was the first time I ever had honest conversations with black friends and colleagues. I remember the day I asked a friend if he had ever been pulled over for no reason other than being black, he laughed at me and said, “You mean this week?” He was kind with my ignorance, yet also helped me see we were living in different worlds.
Right after college, my wife and I owned a small business. We employed a young man from our neighborhood. One time he and I went to the grocery store to buy some things for our restaurant. I was standing at the front of the store I could see a grocery store employee following him. When we left the grocery store I asked him if he got followed around a lot at stores. “I don’t even go to ZCMI any more,” he said, “It’s just not worth the hassle.” No one followed me around the grocery store or the department store. During the same time I employed this young man, I ran for the state legislature. I remember going to the NAACP forum, there were six people running for house or senate seats from our county, only two of us showed up for the forum. I asked a reporter, “Where’s everybody else? Where are the other candidates?” He shrugged. I remember telling him, “Well, I guess it’s your job to find out right?” The other candidates didn’t even bother to show up or give an explanation as to why they didn’t come.
Over the the years I’ve had students whose parents were deported. I have had students who can’t get financial aid for college because they were brought to this country when they were toddlers. I’ve known brave fathers and mothers who came across the border seeking a better life, who live in constant fear. I’ve had young black students who can tell me the names of their friends who have been shot and killed in gang violence. I’ve seen the look of pain on their faces when they talk about police shootings–they wonder if they are next. Not long ago I had a painful exchange with a dear friend. He and his beautiful family were considering moving from their downtown Indianapolis home. I suggested they move to our suburban community. He told me he could not move there because he and his friends who visited there often got stopped by the police. I asked another friend if he had the same experience in my community–he sadly told me his personal stories of being pulled over for a DWB (driving while black) on more than one occasion. How could I not know this was happening?
The painful truth is I am not having the same lived experience as my friends of color. I enjoy a white privilege. I know that phrase offends some people, but it’s true. I certainly don’t mean to infer that everything always goes wonderfully for white folks. I understand some of the reasons we have so many ‘angry white men’. People feel like their status and economic potential has been minimized. I think Steven Gillon’s piece in the Washington post does a good job articulating some of this frustration. However the bottom line is we are experiencing life differently. Who am I to tell others to stop talking about their reality? How can I tell people that their lived experience isn’t real, that it’s time to move on, that they should stop complaining.
What I can do is try to truly understand others. We have to go beyond tolerance and maybe way beyond our comfort zone. I loved this Ted talk by Theo E.J. Wilson, he is a BLM leader who goes undercover on social media as a white supremacist. One of the main takeaways for him was the need to avoid liberal echo chambers in order to better understand where people are coming from. When we retreat into our own safe spaces and only open ourselves up to that which reaffirms our worldview, not only are we not closer to genuine understanding, we deepen our misunderstanding of others.
As I have been pondering this I revisited then Senator Obama’s speech about race. Here, he is talking about concerns people had with his Pastor Jeremiah Wright.
“…this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
We all live here together. If our goal really is to create a “more perfect union” we can’t just talk past each other or about each other, we have to talk to each other. Social media provides a powerful platform to do that but it also has great limitations. We need to find ways to have deep meaningful conversations about race–especially with those whose lived experience is different than our own.
The conversations I’ve had with my friends of color have helped change my world view and made me a better more empathetic person. I am convinced the more we come to truly understand someone else’s experience the more rich and meaningful our own experience becomes. These conversations will not be easy or comfortable but they have the power to bring us together if we open our ears and our hearts toward understanding.