As of June 14, 2020, my sister Ashley might be the only person that reads anything we post on this site. For now, I’m ok with that. We’re still figuring out what our message is or what we are actually trying to accomplish by writing something every day. We’ll get there eventually. In the mean time, I read something she wrote on Facebook and it made me think. I figured I would offer up a couple of thoughts.
The first is that her and I have a combined 22 years of experience being one of the only white people living in an all black neighborhood. Her 8 years and my 14 are certainly enough to justify having an opinion. They might even be enough to start to believe that our opinions actually matter. It’s debatable what those opinions mean or if they can be used to move anyone toward a greater level of empathy or understanding. It has to mean something, though, right? I have 13 years of experience in education and because of that I am good at education. If I go by that same logic, that would mean that I am good at having empathy and understanding toward poor, black people. I’ve had a lot of practice at it and so has she. We are both good at seeing an outward action we don’t understand and attempting to understand it through an empathetic lens.
It might have taken me those 14 years to come to terms with what we are actually doing to the poor, black families that live in my neighborhood. The phrase unmet potential has been smacking my in the face lately because it describes what takes place here. A child growing up in my neighborhood that graduates high school and enters the middle class through post secondary education is an anomaly. It happens, but it isn’t the expectation. On the flip side, if I hadn’t entered the middle class within 5 – 10 years after graduating from high school, I would have been seen (by white semi-affluent suburb I grew up in) as a failure. It was the expected outcome after 13 years of public education. I have known enough people in my neighborhood to understand the only difference between myself and my average neighbor is the color of my skin and the fact that my parents weren’t poor.
Ok, so our opinions might matter. So what? Well, I am starting to wonder if our (white people) collective experiences are so far different that those of our black counterparts that understanding and empathizing with the injustice and inequity that exists between the two groups is inaccessible to most whites. A few years after moving here, I stopped telling people where I live. It gets old when you try to explain where you live and you are met with blank stares and confused looks, like it is inconceivable that someone might want to intentionally grow in empathy and understanding of a marginalized group by forcing themselves to interact with that group by living near them. No one has ever said this to my face, but I assume most people I told where we lived figured I was just a dumb ass, like I didn’t realize everyone around me was black and poor. The fact that it took police killing another unarmed black men for the country to wake up to social injustice is further proof that the black experience in America is practically impossible for whites to understand. I believe this, because after living here I know people that were killed by gun violence. I know people that died because of a lack of education around health care. I know people that can’t find work because they don’t have a basic education, one that we are supposed to be providing to everyone. I know elderly people that can’t afford senior living care because their homes never appreciated. I have lived next to drug houses and so have my neighbors. I know kids that sleep on the floor because their parents can’t afford beds. I’ve seen how predatory lenders cripple the poor. I have seen how for profit colleges dismantle the dreams of young people who think they are making the smart decision by going to college. I have seen large groups of men and women with nothing to do except sit on the porch and drink. Those things aren’t worse than a police officer killing a man, but the scale at which they take place is so much greater that the collective damage done far outweighs the actions of a few police officers. I am ashamed of the unmet potential I witness on a daily basis by walking around my block. I am just beginning to understand the scope of the problem and if that is the case for me, I can only imagine the difficulty the average white suburban man my age would have in understanding the social inequity that exists even a few miles from their homes.
I guess the third thought is more like some advice. So here it is. If you are vaguely aware of the inequities that exist between the average white person and average black person, you are going to have to be super patient with anyone that isn’t. It might not be accessible for them. It might be like trying to teach a 9 year old Algebra. You could do it, but it would take a lot of time, effort, and willingness on both sides to make it work and because of that you might be better off waiting a couple of years. If George Floyd’s murder helped you to wake up to social injustice, I would recommend not stopping there. The dynamics that create murderous cops have also created a lot of other fucked up shit over the last couple of hundred years. If I am 14 years in to trying to wrap my head around it while living in the middle of it, it might also take you a little while. Finally, we all can grow in empathy. I continue to find myself seeing things that used to piss me off about living here in new lights. When people try to meet their needs with limited resources it gets messy. The more empathetic we all are, the greater chance we will have to make actual change happen.