Several years ago I went back to college when I was approaching fifty in order to finish what I had started decades before. It’s a long story that’s not relevant to this post but I was taking evening courses while continuing to work during the day. Needless to say, I was usually the oldest student in class. The university I attended was a state school about twenty minutes outside of New York City so the enrollment population was very diversified. When I took a course on Religions of the World, it was enlightening to hear from so many people speaking first hand about their beliefs and experiences. It made the course come to life for me.
I had been attending classes about three years when I took a course on Conflicts and Resolutions. Not exactly part of the English/Creative Writing curriculum, but an elective requirement. About three weeks into the fall semester, the professor had us turn our chairs into a circle so that we all faced each other. Then she asked each one of us to tell the rest of the class about someone in their lives they had an issue with and how, or if, they resolved the problem. About half way through the exercise we came to a young African-American woman who didn’t hesitate to share her feelings. With a pronounced edge to her voice she spoke nine words I’d never forget , “I don’t like or trust middle age white men.” She didn’t look at me when she spoke and she didn’t have to. Everyone else did. I was the only one there who fit her description.
I can tell you it was an uncomfortable moment but I’m guessing you already figured that out. There were six or seven seconds that felt like several minutes where it seemed as if everyone stopped breathing. Or maybe it was just me. The professor, to her credit, didn’t ask the young woman to explain herself. She simply announced that we should take a break.
As everyone filed out of the classroom, I followed the young woman. I didn’t know what I was going to say as I approached her but I don’t like pink elephants so I knew I couldn’t go through the rest of the semester like that. When I caught up to her I asked if we could speak for a few minutes. She didn’t answer, she just tilted her head a bit and seemed to looked through me. Waiting. I didn’t ask her to explain why she said what she did or why she felt that way. I would never presume to understand her past and the discriminations I’m sure witnessed first hand but I had an idea. I asked her where she was from and when she didn’t answer, I told her the name of the city where I grew up. She didn’t say anything but her head straightened up and I could see in her eyes she was surprised. Maybe in her mind middle age white men in a dress shirt and pants don’t come from those type of places. I told her I was never a victim of racism or discrimination but that on several occasions I’d seen my mother and father held at gunpoint by black men who were robbing the small grocery store they owned, how I was threatened with a meat cleaver over a baseball field and pulled out of bed at night because of gunshots outside our first floor apartment window that had bars on them to keep people from trying to break in. Most times I was the only white kid at the playground basketball court but it never seemed to matter to me or the kids I was playing with at the time. We were all just looking for the same game. And I told her all of that meant nothing because I could still walk down the street that night and no one would cross to the other side of the road because they were afraid of me or be suspicious of me because of the color of my skin. I tried to explain that not every middle age white man is the same and that neither of us should assume to know each other without knowing each other. After a few moments she nodded, said “fair enough,” and walked back to class without another word. We had two or three very brief conversations the rest of that semester that didn’t last more than a minute or two. And when the final class ended we nodded to each other before walking out. I never ran into her again.
Racism is a difficult topic to discuss and I don’t pretend to have the answers or understand the complexities of this issue. History and emotions are not easily dismissed and discrimination is ever-present. I’ve always believed fear and ignorance play a large part in people’s perceptions of others. I’ve heard people say they’re not racist because they don’t see color. Of course they see color. We all do regardless of our race or ethnicity. We also see height and weight, hair style, glasses, looks, clothing, wealth, color and nationality in the moment someone walks in the door. If anyone tells you differently they’re not being honest. It’s human nature. We make initial evaluations based on what we see, to believe otherwise would be naive. However it’s the decisions we make following those evaluations that decide who we are and what we believe.
Racism and discrimination are a toxic complexity. We need to have a serious discussion about race in this country and we need to do it honestly, directly and with respect for everyone’s position and opinion. I realize that human nature may never allow us to eliminate racism, but we can make it better. The truth is, there are too many people on both sides of the issue who will not forget, refuse to forgive and only see what they chose. Complicated issues don’t have simple solutions and there is never one reason or one answer. But we have to start somewhere. We have to believe that even the most wounded will meet us halfway. Sometimes a simple conversation is a beginning. Sometimes that’s all you need.