I grew up in a household where black people were venerated. My dad was a jazz musician and a lover of jazz and soul music. As a teenager, unbeknownst to his parents, he and his friends would ditch school, hop on the train from Connecticut to NYC and sneak into the clubs to hear some of the greatest musicians of all time: Miles Davis; John Coltrane; Thelonious Monk. During my early childhood my Dad wrote his dissertation on the Black Power movement. Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones and other African American thought leaders of the time were household names. Later on, my dad started teaching Black Studies at Skidmore College, created the Skidmore Jazz Institute and brought the Boys Choir of Harlem to campus for a month each summer for almost two decades.
In my 14th year, the first group of former inmates from a maximum security prison in upstate New York became full time students at the college. For several years, these guys, most of them black or brown, were a constant presence at our house at all hours of the day or night, and I got to know them intimately, hear their stories, watch some of them succeed against the odds. A few years later, my sister married her college sweetheart, a black man, and their two children have grown up with mine. Despite evidence to the contrary (white high school friends who snuck over to our house to see their black friends, against their parents wishes, stories of oppression from my dad’s students of color), I believed that our country was making huge progress, that the gross inequities suffered by African Americans were in the past. Most of all, I believed my particular experiences had inoculated me against racism and prejudice. I was wrong.
About fifteen years ago I was flying home from a trip. During this period I was flying around the country a lot, helping communities organize inclusive community dialogues about a wide range of issues, including racism and race relations. On this particular trip, I found myself sitting next to an older African American gentleman. I remember he wore a bowtie and a sweater, he had a kind face, a nice smile and for some reason he kind of reminded me of Mister Rogers. We struck up a warm conversation about the weather, where our trips had taken us, where we were headed. Then we found out that we lived, not just in the same Vermont town, but in the same neighborhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, but at this point in the conversation, I was about to say something that would change everything, cause harm, put up an insurmountable wall between us. My seatmate stated that he like our neighborhood ok, except for the many racist incidents that he and his wife experienced. I raised my eyebrows, I looked at him in disbelief, I said, “really?”
His face changed immediately. The warmth left it. His gaze shifted from me to the seat in front of him and we continued the rest of the flight in silence. At the time, I wasn’t sure what had happened. It didn’t take me long to find out. Shortly after that encounter I had several experiences where I witnessed first hand people saying and doing blatantly racist and offensive things towards people of color, right in my neighborhood.
These experiences left me shaken. They helped me begin to understand the damage caused by my unintentionally racist denial on the airplane. I saw that by failing to acknowledge the truth of my seat mate's experience, I was rubbing salt in a very large wound. What’s especially hard about this story is that I should have known better, shouldn’t have been surprised about these experiences. I began to wonder, how is it possible given my personal and professional experiences that I could continue to deny reality? And, even more troubling, why did I cling especially hard to my denial when reality showed up in my own neighborhood?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about it this way. Its as if our country has been built around a deep and muddy pond. Inside the pond is a toxic stew; the legacy of slavery and racism in all its forms including centuries of institutional policies and practices (Jim Crow segregation, housing discrimination, predatory lending, unfair hiring practices, unfair sentencing practices, biased college admissions policies). Because of this legacy, between the muddy waters of the pond and the dry ground above, there are huge gaps in wealth, employment, student achievement, life expectancy.
African Americans and other people of color have been swimming in this dirty water for hundreds of years. Many have drowned. Some have become excellent swimmers. In fact, many people in these inhospitable waters have come together to build amazing life rafts; create strong communities organized around religion, education, arts, culture. They have become resilient, continuing to make significant and enduring contributions to our country, all the while navigating the stresses of having to work constantly to stay afloat.
In the meantime, white people are on the edge of the pond, benefitting from the wealth that was first created by native and enslaved people and the privileges that hundreds of years of racist laws, policies and practices have solidified. A lot of the time we try not to look down, preferring to gaze across at the white people on the other side. It's kind of lonely on the edge of the pond. It's not set up so that we can easily be in community with each other. In fact, we’ve given up a lot to be on these banks. In my case, I’m completely disconnected from my Irish, Italian and Jewish heritage. My great grandparents stopped speaking their native languages, burned our family tree in a fire, replaced every Jewish observance with a strange Christmas celebration, didn’t pass along any musical traditions and left me with one meager recipe to pass along to my children. Even so, it’s pretty comfortable up here. That is, until something happens (like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the awful video images of unarmed black people being killed by police officers, the rise of hate crimes and white supremacists in recent years, or a threatening encounter at a local store) that causes us to fall into the water.
So, what happens when white people fall in this water? We can’t swim! It’s foreign and scary and we start thrashing around. And imagine our arrogance, when sputtering and splashing, we try to reach out to our friends of color in there and say “hi, I’m here to help! And, here’s another thing that happens. We get the hell out of the water as fast as possible….escape back to the relative comfort of the edge - but once we’ve been in the water, living on the edge is a lot less comfortable and it is easier to fall back in the next time we witness injustice.
So, my question to myself has become, how do I learn to stay in this pond and to help transform it from a toxic stew to a life giving liquid. Here’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to understand this water. I try to listen carefully to my family, friends and colleagues who are people of color so I can continue to build a better, deeper understanding of life in and around the pond. I look for other white people in the water so we can build community to help us function in there with our eyes and hearts open to the reality we find. I read books and articles, watch movies, engage in conversations, take an unflinching look at our country’s history. Now that I’m getting to be a better swimmer, I’m able to start working with others to create changes in how we are with each other, and to help create larger changes in the traditions, practices, policies, and laws that have polluted this water.
When I do these things, I need to try to have a little humility and to know that people of color will always be better swimmers than me. I need to have patience with myself and others, keep calm when I make mistakes, and develop a thick skin so the frustration and anger of some people of color who don’t want me in the water, and the defensiveness of white people who are trying to avoid falling in, don’t deter me from moving forward.
I know this all sounds like a lot of work, and it is. I’d like to say I never get out of the pond, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s more true to say that I try to stay in as much as possible. So, what keeps me in the water? A few things. The love I have for the people of color in my life. I’m sick of being separated from them, unable to fully bridge the divide between us that our racist legacy has wrought. I stay in because I don’t think things will change until a critical mass of people are in there together. I stay in because I am passionate about the experiment that is America and I want us to continue to work to form “a more perfect union.”
And finally, I stay in because of the example my father set for me. He didn’t wring his hands. He didn’t feel guilty. He didn’t see himself as advancing a great and important cause. My dad simply acted on his interests and his commitment to the basic idea of fairness. He leveraged the resources at his disposal and took actions to create the change he wanted to see. With this simple attitude, maybe we can all find a way to stay in the pond and work together to transform these muddy waters.