This story starts with me being mad at a black man.
I am probably not the only middle-class, liberal white woman to get mad at a black man, but possibly one of only a few to…you know…actually mention it. Out loud, in her blog.
Because it’s awkward. It’s awkward since I support black people. I support racial equality. I have participated in Black Lives Matter marches, for goodness sake.
The day I got mad was a few months ago when I went to a lecture at the seminary where my husband Gary works part time, to hear Dr. James Logan from Earlham College speaking about mass incarceration.
Logan is a black man and he was angry…he seemed particularly angry that night…so angry it practically seeped out of his pores.
Angry that the number of people in U.S. prisons has been growing exponentially over the last 30 years, so that we now have the highest prison population rate in the world.
Angry that most of that growth is because of the mass incarceration of black and brown men. Many of whom are serving time for minor offenses.
Angry about how the courts impose sentences…that, for example, though white people are more likely to use drugs, black people are three times as likely to be jailed for possession.
And of course, he was angry about how police respond to people of color on the street, angry about Ferguson and Baltimore and this litany of names that keeps growing longer every day: Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott…
He was lecturing to a room of concerned, sincere, mostly white liberals like myself, and he was relentless in his description of the problem, searing in his exegesis of the racism and profit-making involved in the criminal justice system in America.
But he didn’t really offer any solutions. And he didn’t even end his lecture saying he was happy we came. And thanks for the concern, nice white people.
He just stopped talking and started the Q&A.
Finally, someone in the hall asked him the question I was thinking: “What can we do about this?”
The professor didn’t say much. He basically asked if the questioner had any black friends he could have a conversation with.
That was it. Talk to black people? Listen to black people?
Really? That’s all you’ve got for us?
I was hoping for something more action-oriented: Write to this government official. Go to this protest march. Sign your name here. Stop buying this product. Post this on Facebook.
This “talk with a black person” thing seemed weird, frankly. How is that going to change anything?
It left me feeling angry. Pissed off.
Because it’s not like I don’t talk to black people. I go to a multi-racial church. Some of the folks I work with at my ad agency job are bIack. I have several people who I’d call good friends who are black. I’m certainly doing better than the 75% of Americans who don’t have any black friends at all. So really, what kind of solution was this?
At one point during the lecture, I looked across the room and saw a face I recognized but didn’t expect to see in the sea of seminarians – a young black man I’ll call Lawrence, who works at a little coffee place I frequent – who was not, as far as I knew, a seminary student.
I went over to Lawrence afterwards to say hi, but we didn’t talk long because he excused himself to go speak with the lecturer. But when I saw him the next week I asked him about it. How he came to be at this pretty under-the-radar event and what he thought about it. I wanted to tell him how Logan’s lack of any real solutions made me mad. See if it made him mad too.
Since Lawrence has been working at this place around a year or two, I’ve seen him about once a week, exchanged pleasantries with him, but I’d never really talked with him that much, quite honestly. There are a lot of parents with babies and toddlers who are often there when I am, and I’ve always noticed how sweet Lawrence is with these kids…and they all seem to adore him.
But I didn’t really know him. I hadn’t ever actually asked him anything personal. Until this moment.
How did you end up at this lecture? I asked, when he had a minute of break.
A friend thought I might like it, he said, because I’ve spent time in prison.
Wow. I did not expect that.
I didn’t know that, I said.
Yeah, he responded. And then, amazingly enough, he told me his story.
About being in prison. And how he ended up there. About what it’s like to grow up black on the south side of Chicago, how, when I was teaching my girls to look both ways before crossing the street, he was being taught to always keep his hands in sight and his head down. How he had big aspirations — college and kids and a good job and so he tried to be different from the stereotype — in high school, he didn’t wear hoodies, he wore khaki pants, even carried a briefcase. “You can imagine how popular that made me, ” he said.
He was always trying to be careful, stay out of trouble, trying to make sure the cops never had any reason to arrest him, even though they stopped him plenty of times, for doing nothing, for walking down the street and being black.
Were you afraid? Of the cops? Are you always afraid? I asked. Or do you just expect it and get used to it?
I expected it, but I never got used to it. And yes, I was afraid. I am afraid.
After Lawrence and I spoke that day, I thought again about what Professor Logan had said. Thought about the fact that I’d seen Lawrence a hundred times and never actually talked with him. Never asked him a real question. And I started thinking about my relationship with other black people in my life.
How we talk about a lot of things, but rarely about their experiences of being black in America. We mostly act like we are pretty much the same.
Racism and racial inequality is our elephant in the room.
And it remains that way because I don’t ask too many personal questions and usually they don’t bring up much about what it’s like to be someone who isn’t white. Maybe because they imagine I don’t want to know?
It’s a happy little bubble I’ve been privileged to live in, I’ve been happy to live in, because I’ve got a busy life, a very full time job, a mortgage to pay, kids to get through college, and blacks are doing so much better than they were 50 years ago in this country… for the most part, right? I mean things could be better, but…
After this conversation with Lawrence, I started thinking maybe Logan was right. And maybe the reason the good professor pissed me off was because what he was asking for wasn’t easy. It was uncomfortable. It was demanding.
It requires that I do something different with my life, something harder than sharing a Facebook post or putting my name on a petition. Or even walking in a protest march.
It requires me to start awkward conversations. Start asking black people questions about their experience, asking to hear their stories, asking how they feel. And actually listening to their answers. Not assuming anything.
Part of my white privilege, I have come to see, is the privilege not to ask. Not to have to know.
I’m trying. I’ve started. For example, I was at a large conference on creativity and story-telling a week or so ago and just walked up to a group of four black people sitting by themselves at lunchtime and asked a question. I was embarrassed to do it, feeling kind of crazy and impolite…and I’m basically an introvert after all…but I apologized for interrupting and said, “I’ve noticed there aren’t really any people of color being represented on the stage at this conference. Have you noticed that? How has that felt to you?”
And yeah, it was awkward. I mean the phrase “people of color” came out of my mouth.
But the conversation that happened because of it was good.
Nothing earth shattering, of course.
It didn’t immediately end mass incarceration. Stop police harassment and the shootings of blacks on the streets. Didn’t end the systems in this country that give white people like me, “access and power at the expense of non-Whites, ” as Dr. Barbara Williams Skinner put it in her must-read article I ran across yesterday, “Can We Talk? Some Tough Love Steps to Ending Racism in our Time”
Still, I’m coming to believe that it may be one of the most important things I can do on a daily basis to have an impact on what’s happening with race in this country. That any of us can do.
So I want to thank Professor Logan for letting his anger show that day and for not giving us easy answers. For making me mad. For pushing me to begin being awkward. And starting conversations. For pushing me to begin taking steps on a different path than I have wanted to go down, one that may take me into some places that are unexpected and scary, places filled with truth and pain, but where real change might begin. Places where I need to go.
And I also want to thank Lawrence. For trusting me enough, being brave enough, to tell me about his life.
This story began with me being mad at a black man, but thanks to Lawrence’s courage, it didn’t end there.