Twenty years ago, while getting my masters at Harvard Kennedy School, I participated in a small group seminar course called “Race and Poverty” facilitated by renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson.
Each week, we would meet for three hours and have a discussion on the causes and roots of poverty (based on reading and analysis from many different perspectives). They were powerful afternoons.
Then one afternoon, Dr. Wilson walked into class clearly upset and downtrodden. It seems, as he was going down the elevator in his Cambridge riverfront high-rise apartment, there was a woman already in the elevator. As he entered, he felt her to be clearly uncomfortable and afraid to be alone with a black man. His despairing comment to us went something like, “What do black men have to do if even I, a 64-year-old well-dressed and educated black man, still cause fear? How do we ever bridge the gap and become enough?”
And then I, in my sheltered white liberal-minded way said to Dr. Wilson, “I clearly understand why you were upset. However, I don’t understand why you are so broadly generalizing your sentiment as a cultural issue when perhaps it was just an ignorant woman in an elevator.”
I went on to say that if every time we women generalized a disgusting male comment to the entire male population, we would never have a healthy relationship. Our class discussion got quite energetic and heated after that. Was his experience to be seen as a personal incident or a macro issue? Was he to shake it off as an isolated woman or carry it as the burden of the black man?
A few years after that class discussion, a small skinny boy who had immigrated to the USA from Uganda came into our life and our family. That little boy, now a grown son, turns 28 years old this Saturday, June 7th. So, for the last 17 years, I have been a loving close observer to the experiences my three biological sons and my African son had growing up.
I am grateful that my African son has been the beneficiary of a full scholarship to college based on his merit and his story. He has also been the beneficiary of incredible generosity of so many on his journey to be a snowboarder in the Olympics.
And, here’s the other side. While walking with his 10-year-old sister, he was pushed in the chest and harassed by a man yelling “you black boy shouldn’t be hanging around that white girl” while many bystanders watched and did nothing; While driving home from college, he was pulled over for going 5 miles over the speed limit by a Wyoming state trooper who drew his gun while walking up to the car and detained him there for over two hours. When the judge threw out the ticket and said my son could file a complaint against the officer, “Sir, I just want to be able to drive back and forth from school to my family without trouble.”
These are things my three biological sons have never experienced.
Like Professor Wilson, my son is articulate and respectful, if not deferential, in the face of negatively biased attitudes. Several times he has grabbed my arm and held me back as my inclination was to stand up against a bigot on the street or in line at a store. In his mind, safety comes first.
I am by no means condoning violence, looting or vandalism. But for all of those who hold the mindset that I did 20 years ago, that these issues are isolated and black men should learn to deal with issues on a personal and micro basis, I say we need to open our eyes, hearts and souls wider. There is a systemic, cultural bias that is real. I would have a very challenging time tolerating the things I’ve seen my son have to deal with without an outpouring of rage and anger.
And for those that say racism will always exist, I only ask you to look 50 years ago at the issues between the Irish and the Italians in New England. It begins with each of us saying enough – and having the clarity and grace to see each person for the heart and soul of who they are – not the color or their skin.
And to Dr. Wilson, who is now 84, I send my deepest apologies for my self righteous short sightedness. I am sorry I didn’t see wider and am learning day by day. And thus goes my hope with Six Minutes Daily – that we take a few minutes each day to expand our awareness, raise our consciousness, set our intentions and pause before reacting – that we daily grow in our choices to embody the values we desire to live by. Together we can create connection and not division.