Monday, July 11, 2016

First things first: take off the color-blinders and leave your baggage at the door

I've wondered so many times how to begin.

The silence about what is happening between "black" and "blue" has been deafening from many family and friends.  Good people.  Honest, hard-working people.  Believers. 

White folks.

I first started working through my own thoughts and feelings about these things about a year ago.  Another black man had been killed while in police custody and my first thought was "well, I mean he must have done something.  The police wouldn't stop you just for      fill in the blank     ."  And I held to that for a long time, until I started reading more and more posts from friends who had experienced otherwise.  Strong, smart, successful people - black people - who had no reason to lie or exaggerate their stories.  People I trust.

So I started asking questions.  I asked if they would mind telling me more.  If it was OK for me to ask them about their experiences - not just with law enforcement, but with life.  It dawned on me that I couldn't draw conclusions about their lives by looking only through the lens of my own.

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it wasn't until the ripe old age of 44 that I stopped looking at life from the same perspective as my toddler.

I spent two fantastic years at Purdue University where I was taught to critically examine evidence.  Who is offering this proof?  How was it vetted?  How big was the sample size?  Who is funding the research?  Was the study well designed?  Were the right questions asked?  What does the data really tell us?

This is how I'm trying to look at race right now.  And racism.  And privilege.  Where is my information coming from?  Who is providing it?  What do they have to gain/lose?  How many people are saying the same thing?  What questions are being asked, and were they ever really answered?  What does it all tell us?

Of course it's impossible to be dispassionate about what's happening these days but for the sake of change I think at some point we need to be able to talk and think about race without the baggage of an agenda.  Black folks are scared and angry and, more than any other word I see out there, they are tired.  White folks are scared and angry, but for entirely different reasons.  I acknowledge the feelings on both sides.  But I also respectfully suggest that right now, it's my white family and friends who need to put their fear and anger aside and just LISTEN.  We are so busy defending ourselves that we aren't even listening to the issues for which we are being asked to account.

For as long as I can remember we've talked about being "colorblind."  And I guess if  you don't stop to think about it that's a nice sentiment.  If I don't acknowledge your color I can't be accused of judging you by your race.  Sure.  But let's be clear: skin color is no more a marker of a person or a society than hair color or eye color, height, weight, or shoe size.  Skin color is an easy marker for what makes us different but it is meaningless.  What really makes us different are the lives we lead, the languages we speak and the cultures of our communities.  If you put me next to another overweight, reasonably well-educated, tired brunette mother in a side-by-side photo you might assume we have a lot in common.  But if that woman lived in, let's say, Lisbon we might struggle to find any common ground:  different languages, customs, political beliefs, religious beliefs, diets, fashion...  I really have no idea what life for a woman in Lisbon might be like.  Our outward appearances alone would inform absolutely nothing when it came to what we have in common.

I think it's the same here, only generations of US history have created vast cultural divides between white and black America.  Our attempts to erase those divides by simply disregarding color were perhaps well-meaning but most definitely ill-conceived.  Just like I use different languages when I speak to a doctor and a parent, all while conveying the same information, many black and white people use different language to communicate with people who share their own cultures.  And there is nothing wrong with this - until one culture possesses more power and determines that the other language is inferior.  And it doesn't stop there:  religious practices, family dynamics, cuisines, fashion, beauty - we have fostered a pattern of "us" and "them," and "we" who have historically held the power have subtilely and not-so-subtilely determined that "they" are inferior.

Now.  I don't believe most white people wake up determined to make these distinctions or determinations.  I think it's just what we have been steeped in for generations.  It is unconscious.  And to the extent that it's not intentional it's forgivable - until that moment when you recognize your complicity.  Then you are on the hook to do better and be better.  We cannot be "colorblind" anymore because we have defined society in this country by race.  Instead, we have to recognize our differences without making judgements about them.  We have to look at the life of a black family as different from ours because it is different from ours.  Not in they way they love their kids, or work to provide, or value their liberties, or love this country, or honor God.  But in the way they live, how they interact with the world and how it responds to them.  Why do we assume we know so much?  Why do we assume that black men aren't interested in being good fathers?  Why do we assume there is no desire to break a cycle of poverty?  Why do we assume that we can't help the black community until they figure out how to "help themselves?"  Have we really taken an honest, unbiased look at life for black America?  Have we cared enough to even do that?

I don't think so.  I know I didn't.  I didn't know I had to.  

Probably, if you've stuck with me this long, you've already gone through this thought exercise.  You are wondering how I could be so colossally dense about all of this.  But maybe not.  Maybe you're waiting for me to get to the punchline so you can weigh in and tell me how wrong I am.  That is certainly your right and, in all honesty, I'd love to hear and try to understand your perspective.  But since white folks are so accustomed to thinking about life through their own point of view, let me frame it this way:

I have three children.  They are all happy and healthy with their own unique personalities. But outwardly, one is noticeably different.  She is small and clumsy.  She is obsessed with fans.  She is not a great talker.  She has some unique behaviors that don't make a lot of sense to me.  Based only on those things I could decide that this child won't ever quite measure up to the others.  I could expect less from her because she is able to do less; things are simply harder for her.  I could continue to love her and care for her, never really knowing whether I was doing the best that I could for her.

Or, I could do the work of trying to understand her.  I could read, talk with people, observe her.  I could ask a million questions.  I could ask another person, or two or three or a dozen more people another million questions.  I could keep learning and reaching out until I felt like I really understood what makes this child tick.  And in doing that I could make changes.  I could see that my good intentions from before maybe weren't what was best for her.  I could make adjustments to my own life for the benefit of hers.  I could maybe even realize that all of the efforts I made to lift her up also lifted me up, too.

I suppose I view my efforts to understand the black community in much the same way.  Despite my attempts at "colorblindness" I've always viewed them differently but never bothered to understand them. And while I'm not suggesting that it's white America's job to "save" black people, I am suggesting that we would be honoring them and helping ourselves by making a deliberate effort to understand their lives and help lift them up when we can.  How different would my daughter's life be if I raised her through the lens of my own life experiences rather than working so hard to understand the needs and realities of hers?

How different could things be if we would extend the same love and respect to an entire race?


It still makes me twitchy to say "black people" and "white people" as though we are different.  But in as many ways as we are the same we do lead very different lives.  It's time to see that and own it.  "Black" and "white" is not the end of the story.  It is the story.  And for everyone's sake, I'd really love it if this story got to have a happy ending.