Opened Eyes

diversitywomen

Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend.  We were discussing racial equality, because any of my friends will tell you … I’m not afraid to talk about deep stuff.  Generally speaking, I prefer to do it in face to face conversations with people who know me.  Why?  Because I know they can see my genuineness vs. written conversations that lack tone, body language, and that personal touch that comes with seeing someone’s face.

I was sharing with her my inability to see that racism and discrimination were still as bad as she claimed they were.  (You most definitely can eye roll at this, Lord knows I am eye rolling myself so hard… I’m going to get a migraine.)    The argument she gave me, at the time, was that I didn’t understand what it was like to be discriminated against.  And I retorted back that I in fact did know.

As a woman, I faced discrimination.  As a professional working woman, I once had a man refer to me as “little girl”.  I couldn’t even count the number of times a man wanted to speak to my manager, only to see his disappointment when he found out my manager was a woman too.  Nor, the number of times this same scenario happened and I was in fact the manager.

Before that, in my youth, I can recall walking into local stores and being looked at suspiciously because of the way I was dressed and the people I was with.  The instant look of distrust, eyes watching us the whole time we were in the shop, just waiting for us to do something wrong.

At the time, I felt like “I get it” and “it’s not exclusive to any race”.    I’ll pause a moment, and let you get a few eye rolls in… and even a few verbal responses too.  I know…I know…

Now, I’m looking at things with a new set of eyes.  Why?  Because there are women who have taken the time to help me understand.  They are willing to have the uncomfortable conversations with me.  THANK YOU, ladies, for being gracious and not smacking me upside the head for my naivety.

These conversations don’t discount the fact that I faced discrimination as a woman.  However, even within those discriminating moments… there was never “hate” because I was a woman.  My male peers and counterparts respected me, my work ethic, and trusted me to do the job I was hired for.  My discrimination came only from those who didn’t know me.  Customers and clients who were interacting with me for the first time.  Even then, when they realized my authority (like it, or not)… their attitudes did shift.   In fact, one even came to prefer working with me exclusively after he was able to get over himself.  This is a different response than you’ll find in racial discrimination.  Where people of color (whatever ethnicity they represent) may not even be given that benefit of the doubt.

I recently reflected on a young woman I worked with, and how a customer once treated her.  She was a beautiful black woman, her skin was like midnight.  She was also disabled, only to the point where she moved a little bit slower than the rest of us.  Yet, she was one of my staff members that I could count on the most.  Need someone to stay late, she was the girl.  Need someone to fill in for another staff member out sick, she’d come in on her off day.  Never once did I have to fix a mistake she made, her work was accurate and dependable.  I can still recall MANY times I had to intervene with a client who was anything but pleasant with her.  At the time, I thought this issue was her pace.  But the more I have thought about it, the more I realized this was not their issue.  It was the “safe” complaint they could make, under the public eye.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook her thoughts about racial discrimination and our response to it.  She’s not a Christian… and her post was riddled with curse words that would make some of us a bit uncomfortable.  So, I’m going to paraphrase her (if you read this, I hope I do justice).

If you have never had to

  1.  run through scenarios of what not do in public places so you are not perceived as a criminal…
  2. have your parents explain to you how to behave if you get pulled over by the police so that you can survive
  3. wonder if a picture of you will be used out of context to justify you were a bad person…

… then sit down.

If your only contribution to the current conversation is to point out all the mistakes a person ever made as a reason why they deserved to die…

If you have a clean record, college honors, amazing career, beautiful family…. but do not have to live with a baseline of fear of being killed in the wrong circumstances…

… then sit down.

She was sharing her real feelings about her every day life.  This is her reality, so yes the news causes her to respond with her feelings.  And one thing I have learned over the years is that we all have a right to our feelings.  Regardless of the situation, our feelings are real.

And, as she finished her post she left the question:

Is that feeling worth at least a conversation?

Yes.  Yes it is.

It’s also worth some serious introspection.

You see, back in the day… when I walked into those stores and distrust was flung my way.  Yes, you could say I was discriminated against by the way I looked.  But, let’s be honest.  That look… I chose it.  Those friends… I chose them.  I could have walked right out of that store, gone home, changed into plain jeans and a t-shirt, adjusted my make up and hair, and returned to a very different response.  I would have been welcomed, no eyes would have followed me as I perused the shelves. I would have been greeted with a warm smile, a friendly how do you do, and thanked for my business.

That is not the same outcome for people who don’t look like me.   It wouldn’t have mattered if they walked in a track suit or a 3 piece custom fitted suit.  I could go home and change my choice of clothes, but they can’t go home and change their skin color.

My husband and I were talking about it, and he said….

It comes down to this, if you are pulled over by the police… what color do you want your skin to be?

He grew up in a predominantly black neighbor, and he can recall his own interactions with the police.  He told me that the cops in that area were hardened.  They were used to being lied to, and they expected the worst from everyone.  Everyone was suspected.  However, he also shared that he knows his interactions with them were far better than if he was a black kid.

Watching a documentary one night, our eyes were opened even farther.  When you can see the long standing distrust of the police in a community, from not so distant days where bathrooms were not only defined by gender but also color… you begin to understand.  You can see why communities, as one of the women interviewed stated, “protect their own”.  Because, at one time… innocence or guilt didn’t matter.  Those neighborhoods wouldn’t be so quick to hand over someone to the police, but instead would deal with it in their own way.  They took the risk that their lies to protect the innocent might mean a guilty person got away with it.  The recognized that the punishment that would fall on the shoulders of the guilty black man would weight heavier than if he was white.

If you think that doesn’t still exist, just look at the news.  A white, student athlete from Stanford raped an unconscious woman after a party… he was given a six month sentence.  A black, student athlete from Vanderbilt raped an unconscious woman after a party… he was given a fifteen year sentence.   And we wonder why a community of people has a distrust for our legal system?

We wonder where anger stems from?  We wonder where suspicion stems from?  We wonder where the pain stems from?  We wonder why “they” feel the way they do?

In the words of my friend:

Is that feeling worth at least a conversation?

This is where I believe we all start.  A willingness to at least have the conversation.  Maybe you have not experienced this discrimination or witnessed it.  But, I would challenge you to have those awkward conversations… the uncomfortable ones.  It exists.

It shows up when the teacher asks for the “black perspective” on a piece of literature from the only black student in the honors literature class.

It shows up when we assume a college student was accepted to an ivy league college because of the color of their skin vs. the merit of their work.

It shows up in how the media reports potential crimes, the photos they use and the details they share.

It shows up in how our judicial system dishes out punishments.

It shows up in the conversations that parents have with their children, and how different their life lessons are.

When we are willing to at least have the hard conversations, our eyes are opened a little wider.  Maybe things are not quite as we see them.  It may not be as bad as it was, but we still have a long way to go.

May we see each other with the same eyes that the Lord does, image bearers… our family of believers.  All of equal value, merit, worth, and love.

Thank you to those who are willing to have the conversation.  Thank you for the grace, as I am still seeking to understand.  May the conversations we have be fruitful!

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