I am uncomfortable with racial inequalities that exist in my country. I live my life day in and day out and only rarely am I forced to confront these realities. Certainly the media, social and otherwise, shine a light on the issue, but that is not what I mean. Reading a powerful blog post or an inspiring tweet does not constitute confronting anything. What I mean is that when I get pulled over, shop in a store, go for a job interview, meet a new person for the first time, etc… I expect to be judged by who I am. Yes, I am tattooed and bearded so I’m sure that on occasion someone generalizes about me, but I don’t worry about it because I know that once they get to know me they will move beyond those judgements. And I assume that they will eventually get to know me, because even with their judgement, they will give me the benefit of the doubt. I live my life benefiting from other people’s glass walls. That is simply not true for people of color. They are forced to confront it every single day. Perhaps not in an overtly bigoted and hateful way (although I’m sure that happens too), but in the “deficit of the doubt.” The security guard that makes a mental note that they are there, the woman who locks her car door as they walk by, and yes, the times they get pulled over for driving while black. (No matter how much or how little you think that happens, we all know it happens.) So you see, while I am very uncomfortable when forced to confront a terrible reality that I can generally avoid, my friends and neighbors of color are forced to confront it every day. Consequently, they have formed a thicker skin to the subject and are more free to discuss it. This can easily be misunderstood as being rash or aggressive because it creates an uneasy feeling in me. Let me put it this way: we all have that person in our lives who always manages to say the one thing that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a friend or coworker, maybe it’s your cousin or your sister-in-law; whoever it is, our attitude is generally that it is their problem. We feel like they are doing something to us, because we are feeling uncomfortable with what they are saying or doing, rather than taking responsibility for our own feelings. Until I can acknowledge that I feel more uncomfortable talking about racial inequality than people who have been forced to deal with it every single day of their lives, I will never be able to get over myself enough to be a part of the solution. And if I’m not a part of the solution, I’m a part of the problem.
I am ignorant of the racial inequalities that exist in my country. I was recently watching a Sunday service from North Point Church. In the service the lead pastor, Andy Stanley, invited two African American men who were also christian leaders to be a part of a discussion about recent events and racism in general in this country. They both explained the reality that they were taught how to behave if they ever got pulled over by the police. They talked about it as if it was just another part of growing up. An obvious lesson like don’t drink and drive or always pay your bills. This may not seem so strange until they described exactly what they meant by “how to behave if you ever get pulled over”. One of men relayed that he was taught that you never reach for your wallet. Now, I understand that if you are being addressed by a police officer you don’t want to be erratic or make any sudden moves, but the degree to which this lesson was ingrained in him as an African American young man was startling. It ran so deep in his heart that when he heard about recent events he admitted that there was a part of him the thought to himself, “Why’d you reach for your wallet? You know you’re not supposed to reach for your wallet.” I will teach my boys to always be respectful of police. I will teach them not to resist or run if addressed by police and to always be upfront and honest, but I will not have to teach them not to reach for their wallet. I cannot imagine feeling like I have to teach my children how to protect themselves from the people who are meant to protect them. If ignorance is defined as lack of knowledge, education or awareness then I most certainly ignorant of the racial inequalities that exist in our country. The beautiful thing about ignorance, though, is that it is easily remedied; but not without willingness and intention. There is a video that has been circulating recently showing several people sitting in a diner, all of whom are white except one. The waitress comes out and brings all the white patrons pie. The African American man then asks the waitress, “Where’s my pie?” to which the other patrons respond, “Why are you making such a big deal? All pie matters.” It is meant to illustrate the tension between #blacklivesmatter & #alllivesmatter. I think it is an excellent illustration except that it misses one of the most important factors. It would have been for more accurate if the white guys who had received their pie were blind-folded. Because whether or not we mean to, most of us are blind-folded to the things that people of color deal with every day. That is not our fault, but whether or not we stay that way is on us.
My discomfort and my ignorance can be attributed primarily to one thing: I am distant from the racial inequalities that exist in my country. I live in New Jersey. I am not someone who has gone their whole life without interacting with people of color. I am not someone who is solely informed by the media in regard to cultures and races outside my own. I have friends, coworkers, neighbors, mentors and family members who are people of color but I am still distant from the racial inequalities that mark their lives. I have never made it a secret that I was a “rebellious youth”. And by that I mean that I was a criminal. I made very bad decisions and did a lot of awful things. Some things that I will never be able to fully make amends for. I have, however, never spent more than a weekend in jail. I have always attributed the reality that I am a free man to God protecting me and allowing me to learn my lesson without prison time. I still absolutely know that to be true. However, I have to acknowledge that my “get out of jail free cards ” came, at least in part, due to my ability to catch a good sunburn in 15 minutes. I also regularly share with people how grateful I am for all of the opportunities I have been given to do things I really wasn’t qualified for. I have been allowed behind the scenes in a lot of situations that shaped who I am and developed me in my field with no explainable reason. While I will never really know for sure, I have to wonder if my experience would have looked the same way if I didn’t. The “deficit of the doubt” that people of color experience throughout their lives is something that I am only beginning to understand. And that understanding is really only an intellectual one. It is often said that the greatest distance in the world is 18″, the distance from your head to your heart. I will always remain distant from the deficit of the doubt until I allow it be hit close to my heart. The question then is: How?
I don’t mean know someone in that way that white people tend to reference when racism comes up in conversation. That, “One of my best friends is black” way. I mean I have to enter in. I have to make it my business to overcome my uncomfortability; I have to be intentional about educating myself and raising my awareness so that my ignorance can diminish; and I have make it personal. I need to let my heart break at the fact that there are people in this country who do not receive the benefit of the doubt, ever. I need to care enough to do something. Something more than just write a blog post or share a powerful video clip. I have to build genuine relationships with people of color and stop the whole ridiculous “I don’t see color” BS. I need to see color and learn to appreciate it for what it is. I need to allow myself to participate in and grow from and enjoy a culture that is not my own. One that has its pluses and minuses like all others. I need to be willing to get close enough to applaud when there is a victory, mourn when there is a loss and call it out when there is a shortcoming. I need to actually see my brothers and sisters of color as family. I have a certain degree of power and privilege because of my skin color. That is not something I need to feel guilty about. I didn’t ask for it or seek it out, but I have it. The responsibility for having it isn’t on me; but the responsibility for what I do with it is.