First let me premise this by saying, I am white, and I do not know the full extent of pain black people have been through. But when I moved from a white city in Colorado to multi-racial Atlanta I wanted to learn more– especially lately in response to the news. This is how I did.
Last week I sat next to an older black lady named Gloria on an airplane leaving Atlanta. And we talked. I recognized the patterns in her speech and culture that are not the same as mine. But as I listened it was beautiful, partly because it was different than me. She brings things to the world I cannot.
I learned that she has a good husband and he’s an excellent father, always working extremely hard to be present and to provide. She works hard too. She was a paralegal, and then a school bus driver to the mentally challenged until she retired. Their family gets along well with all of their neighbors, of all races. It sounded like a wholesome, respectable life. You’ve done better than many white folks I know, Gloria.
But then I took in a deep breath and said, “Gloria. This might sound like a really horrible question, so you don’t have to answer it. I have met some remarkable black people like yourself, but I have to be honest, in certain areas of town I feel unsafe, and I notice they are mostly black areas. And with all that has been in the news lately, I’m looking at my own thoughts, and I don’t know what to do with them.”
She sighed and looked down. She said, “You know, I’ve noticed the same thing in myself. There are so many crimes on the news every day, and it’s almost always black people who done it. And when I drive through those neighborhoods, I feel unsafe too. I don’t know how it got to be this way.” She continued, “It didn’t used to be like this; we used to be separated and everything was peaceful. We drank from one side of the drinking fountain; the whites drank from the other. We lived on one side of the train tracks; they lived on the other. There wasn’t any crime and everything was peaceful. Everybody knew their place.”
“But did you feel like you were treated worse than the whites?”
“Well,” she paused, “Yes. My father had to work very, very hard at two jobs because his white bosses didn’t pay him much money. But we had no problems as long as we each stayed in our role.” She spoke matter of factly. To her it seemed an acceptable way of life and she could stand proudly because her family had worked so hard and made it through it. “My dad worked so hard to take care of us. And this taught us to work hard. I remember one night he told us we had to lay on the ground because the KKK were out that night. He worked so hard…” Gloria suddenly couldn’t speak. She held her hand to her mouth and looked away. And then I realized the depths of the pain she had worked so hard to overcome.
And somehow she had taken this life-long oppression, and woven it into stalwart moral character that now helps hold the rest of our society together. I am amazed and very grateful to you, Gloria.
But for the atrocity some of the people of my race did to you because we were selfish and fearful, what you endured, Gloria . . . I am aghast, extremely ashamed. Forgive me, my new friend. A sorry isn’t enough for my people's unanswered sins.
And I think I can see how being treated like that for generations would make some black folks respond with similar violence. We are mad at rocks being thrown around, but we were the ones to throw them first.
What I think I have learned from this is that it is not whites nor blacks of whom we should be afraid- we have both been the perpetrator. It is people who have allowed their fear or anger to usurp their moral convictions and let it turn into violence. It has happened both ways. We are both at fault. This is not a racial condition. It is a human one.
And as I think about it, I am realizing the ridiculously heavy burden that black people in our culture still bear. I don’t think it is fair, but I am afraid for many people they carry the challenge to prove certain stereotypes wrong. That is a very heavy burden for sure and I am thankful to people like Gloria who are doing it so well.
And the white folks. Though it isn’t as obvious, we have a burden to bear as well. We pick it up when our unseen habits and accepted routines give us permission to act on subtle assumptions. It is then that we must identify them, examine them against our inner light and do what is right. We must give every person a full opportunity to prove themselves as noble as anybody else, because we were the ones who were wholly ignoble first and have been given another chance to do it right.
And you will probably have made your decision about whether or not you would share this post based simply on which side you think I fall in this debate. But what I’m trying to say is that I’ve realized we are all on the same side. We are all in the battle against that selfish, fearful side within ourselves. That side within myself.
Raw Spoon, 1-6-14