The Seattle Times has a timely project on having these difficult conversations. I highly recommend the videos -- they are instructive and, to my way of thinking, positive narratives that lead to empathy and healing. Please see them here.
I know next to nothing about growing up as a person of color in this country. From the very few 'racial divide' experiences I've had with friends of color, I get a wee glimpse:
- my next door neighbor and I in her driveway running a garage sale. every car that pulls up that has white people in it drives away. Every. Single. One. She and her family are black. I ask her if it's just my perception that only people of color are stopping and she confirms that it is, in fact, the case. I know it was such an obvious question, but I was seriously confused and disturbed by what I thought was going on and I guess I looking for reassurance.
- a friend has 'the talk' with her teenager who is black. She is white, her other son is Latino. She doesn't have the talk with her Latino son. She asks her black child to please carry his ID with him at all times, and to do nothing that would provoke a Police officer if he is stopped. She has this talk to impress upon him that his life is a stake. For getting stopped by an officer.
- the shock and horror of a white family, knowing their daughter is going to marry a black man. A wonderful man who has been an ideal husband and father. Who is one of the most decent human beings I have ever known. Someone we can all point to as an exemplary citizen, family man, church goer. (Just as women have to perform twice as hard as a man in the workplace to get noticed, it appears that people of color must have a spotless reputation to earn the trust of white American.)
- I've hired a college student to house sit for us while we're on vacation. Nice guy, studious and fairly religious, though he doesn't wear it on his sleeve. I suggest, and he breathes a sigh of relief, that I take him around and introduce him to my neighbors so no one freaks out and calls the cops on a young black man in the neighborhood, and in our house.
And I know, that I used to be that white woman who pulled her purse in close to her body when walking by young black men. Based on no other information than the blackness of their skin. I grew up in mostly white neighborhoods, attended mostly white schools, socialized in mostly white groups of people. I grew up knowing that Police officers were my friends, there to help me. I grew up believing the world of business and housing and education was fair, and that fairness was a given. If you worked hard, there were no barriers. I believed these things only by accident of birth. I believed these things because I was experiencing America as a white person.
It is now incumbent upon me to be a part of the solution and stop being silent as a white person. I believe it is essential for me, and everyone else, to listen to the real life experiences of people of color and ask "how can I help?" It's my responsibility to, as they say, "check my privilege" and ask other whites to do the same. That's not politically correct talk, as some would assert. That is basic human kindness and civility. That is wanting to be a part of healing this deeply divided country. Our country will not change if white people don't start looking honestly at their own assumptions and prejudices. If we react in a defensive posture, instead of leaning in to hear more closely.