Different Set of Eyes

wallup.net

Yesterday morning, while sitting in a writing lab with a student, we both received notifications at the same time, about the Houston tragedy – Tragedy in Texas – and we talked for a minute or two of our sadness. We exchanged the usual, it keeps happening, oh that’s scary, terrible, any number of coined phrases that are now attached to school shootings. But then I turned to her and I asked her,

“How do you feel about that?” and I looked her directly in the eye.

She paused for a moment, and then replied, “I’m sorry, but the first thing I think about is White people,” and she tried to restrain a natural smile, not one of happiness but one of timid reality that she lives in every day. See this young woman is Latina, and her mindset does not comprehend such an acceptance of school shootings. She believes the ‘mental health’ attachment is just another way of protecting the White community.

I looked at her and said, “You’re right.” But I was just beginning to think about the reality of her words. I couldn’t get past it the rest of the day. In my class later on in the morning, when the subject came up, there she was again, and this time her response was that society just allows it to happen because they can wrap it around a ‘mental illness’ label. I wondered if the rest of our society might see it as clearly as she does. I thought about her world.

In her scope of reasoning she has other concerns. Number one, she lives in a world where ICE is constantly knocking on her door, her friend’s door, family, acquaintances who every day wake up wondering if this is the day – will someone today lose their rights and feel the anxiety of having their family, lifestyle ripped apart. Certainly, it is a different measure than the immediacy of a school shooting leaving the slain to disrupt the lives of their family and friends, but hers is a unique pain.

I honestly don’t believe there is a concern in her world that anyone she is close to would ever resort to bringing a weapon to school and gunning down anyone in their presence. But I do think she walks around school, with her observant insight, wondering what next. What will be the next offense that will bear down on her society.

I’ve thought about my conversation with this young woman for the last 24 hours. She has given me new insight into what it is each of us thinks about every day, what are our central concerns, who do we worry about, and rather, when we think of an emotional commitment, what end holds confidence in our survival? Where she might be in constant motion trying to balance her world, her education, her work life all in a genuine effort to survive in America as a Latina woman, I’m on the other hand thinking about what plans I have for the weekend, and how can I pace my grading through the end of school year.

I don’t worry about losing my family to an immigration sweep. I do worry about school shootings, and I am constantly confused by how it continues to occur and how our society is gradually hypnotized into this absurd level of acceptance. She on the other hand holds a very sharp and poignant answer that when the rest of us stop and think about it, reveals a posture in our society that seems easily put aside.

Perhaps we are erring when we simply call it mental health rather than privilege.


photo taken from Pinterest

Advertisements

I’m Upset About a Coffee House in Philadelphia

Last night, I turned on the news and there was increasing coverage everywhere about the Starbucks incident with two African-American men being arrested for ‘trespassing’ in a local store. The incident has gained national momentum and attention to the degree that the CEO has met with the two gentlemen and proclaimed a day of sensitivity training for nearly 8000 stores. I listened to Don Lemon on CNN interview the CEO and ask him whether or not he really believed that ‘one day’ would be a sufficient amount of time to desensitize the discriminate nature of this revealing expose of racism in our country. The CEO didn’t have an answer but expressed an emotional reaction to the controversy.

In a followup after the interview, Don Lemon brought on W.Kamau Bell to speak to the general reaction and commentary of the CEO, Kevin Johnson, of Starbucks. Bell hosts the exceptional series, United Shades of America, (Season 3: Premieres Sunday, April 29 at 10 p.m. ET/PT) on CNN.

To be clear, I’m a white guy reacting to an issue that impacts black people every day, not just an isolated incident in a Philadelphia coffee shop, and that was the general pitch of Don Lemon and W. Kamau Bell’s final commentary. In a manner of speaking they theorized how might a white CEO of a major industry empathize with the reality of racism in today’s society. Certainly, Kevin Johnson is putting a face on a possibility, but I think our society needs to realize that is only a start. Much like the students of Broward County and their efforts to raise awareness in a privileged society, I listened to their final words because I personally am looking for an answer.

I know racism exists. I know I have my own prejudicial misgivings. I think what bothers me the most is when people seem to suggest that not talking about it will just make things better, make things go away. The reality is, by not having dialogue, the resentment, the frustration, the explosive backlash becomes a greater concern than if there were a conversation. The discussion takes time though, takes courage, demands commitment from all people involved.

I think what Lemon and Bell are suggesting is that too often we bandaid the issue, and it rises up again. Tonight, in social media a friend of mine indicated that everything is about hate. What if we actively turned that around? What if we made everything about love? What if we got past the idea that it is easier to despise than it is to put effort into understanding? What if instead of declaring the Philadelphia incident as an anomaly, we admittedly took action to recognize such discrimination exists? We don’t have to define it, we simply have to accept the reality of our society’s ills and the need to open our hearts to admitting the surface level of fear that creates such a problematic mindset is real and not overstated by a liberal versus conservative party of thinking.

I can’t help wonder what it might be like to create dialogue between differing parties without onlookers with agenda and attitude to tear down the chance to allow people to learn from one another rather than destroy opportunity. Seems idealistic certainly, but its really. If we understand each other, we can look one another in the eye. If we remain afraid of one another, then the wall will remain in tact.

In Philadelphia an individual seemingly, well quite obviously overreacted to a normal gathering of two human beings who began their day never imagining their world to be turned upside down by a discriminatory motive. Let me restate that. The two gentlemen in Philadelphia began their days completely aware that at any moment their lives could be marginalized by racial profiling because of the color of their skin. However, in their lives, they have learned it is a necessary reality for them to constantly be aware of a negative circumstance unfolding right before their very eyes.

That happened in a Philadelphia Starbucks, and the two individuals wrongfully arrested created a hailstorm of controversy that speaks to what certain cultures have to accept and go through every day. I’m a white guy, and I don’t have to experience this, but I see it. I’m a teacher and I have students of every race in my classroom, and the one thing I demand of my day, is that every individual in my room is respected as much as the next person. The two gentlemen in Starbucks need to have been treated as equally as anyone else in the store.

The need exists, the dialogue, communication, desire to understand must begin. We cannot continue to simply look away.

My America (written for contest)

To understand, My America, I wanted to embody a lifetime of experience that could speak directly to my concept of living as a white man in the Midwest. I was fortunate to grow up with conscientious siblings all of whom were driven by values instilled by parents just trying to keep up with the norms of their day. My folks raised five kids, most of whom came of age in the sixties, experiencing the death of JFK, RFK, Shirley Chisolm running for President, the assassinations of Malcolm X and MLK Jr., and countless other life changing events wrapped around the atrocities of the Vietnam War. My sad claim to fame was that in 1972, Kent State had occurred on my birthday. These events all of them tragic had a huge impact on who I am today.

 

I love America, I truly do, I am a patriot by all accounts, thankful for my freedom and the many men and women that sacrificed their lives to help maintain our free society. However, there are times when I am made physically sick by the actions of many, all of whom could find more peace in their lives by just opening their eyes. There is a systemic method of discrimination in our society that permeates every aspect of our lives. Interestingly, as a white person in this time, it seems I would be just fine if I ignored everything around me that is hostile or demeaning to my way of life. I wouldn’t have to deal with it because I am of the color of skin that these realities do not impede. For me personally, that is a problem, it always has been and is resultant in my writing this story.

 

When I was a young boy, I took a trip to New York with my family. I was 12 years old. One night a group of us went to the corner grocery store. I noticed a number of black kids playing about outside the store, and I asked the person I was with if they knew any of them, as the market was only a couple blocks from their home. They immediately responded with, “I don’t mess with any (n-word).” It was at that moment I was struck with fear. I had never felt this way, I didn’t know how to feel. I was raised in the whitest of white America in the Midwest and had never experienced any aspect of the African-American culture, beyond my readings about MLK and X, and my mother’s insistence we recognize authors of color in all of our studies. I was scared for the first time in my life of something I had no control over, I felt threatened without knowing why. It wasn’t until the next day that I could understand my fear was based upon the person I was with and not the people at the corner store who left me feeling curious.

 

The next morning our family was given an auto tour of Manhattan and several surrounding Burroughs including Harlem. As we drove past The Cotton Club and I noticed the streets were filled with black people, I said emphatically to my mother, “That’s who I saw last night mom, black people.”

 

She looked out to the gatherings of people going about their morning, turned to me, and provided me a life changing suggestion. “Thom, those aren’t black people you’re seeing, those are people,” and then she smiled and continued to finish her Tareyton cigarette, like Katherine Hepburn standing with a foggy backdrop, showing logical purpose.

 

Fast forward 30 years, and I am a teacher in a high school classroom. I finish my licensure and am fortunate to be given my first theatre program. During that summer, while working on the coming year, I scour multi-cultural scripts, the only one I know firsthand is Raisin in the Sun, and I keep it on my shelf for future consideration. I can’t find anything I like or understand. I’m having a hard time maintaining my goal of becoming the ‘multi-cultural teacher of the year’ if all I can produce are mainstream script ideas. I call a friend at a local high school with a unique demographic and ask for her suggestions.

 

She states calmly, “I’ve never used a multicultural script.” And I think about that for a moment, and I’m suddenly thrown off wondering how that could be possible. When I asked her why not, her response was my first lesson of a new cultural awareness that I suddenly realized had nothing to do with race and more to do with talent.

 

“I cast only the right person for the character or role,” she stated, and I was in the moment humbled. I suddenly felt like a racist, because rather than focusing on the content, I was centering my aim upon the color of every students’ skin that would eventually audition to be on my stage. Years later that lesson echoes in my mind every time I hold an audition. However, I wish that solution could remain that easy.

 

In today’s world there is a greater need to understand diversity and how it works in our society. Gone are the days of suggesting that issues only apply to one minority. They apply to everyone, and right now as I write this I am questioning my own ability to be an open minded citizen of America that recognizes and respects every culture that I have the opportunity to encounter in my daily life. It’s not easy, but I didn’t come here to whine.

 

In recognizing My America I try to look to the future, given the present turn of events since our last election. We are in the middle of a crisis, that one group of people would suggest is overstated, while another group will cry out, ‘when will it ever be enough?’ Today, my focus is on racism and how it permeates our society to a greater level than even I was kept sheltered from in my formative years, beyond the television and books. Through my family’s eyes, I did experience Civil Rights and I did value its importance on our society. Today it seems all those battles in the 60’s have been summarily dismissed and we are faced with re-tooling our ability to open our minds to an incredibly diverse and beautiful world of people.

 

I don’t have the answers, but I do certainly have the passion and that desire and hope remains with me in every waking moment. My dreams are what fuel an idealism that allows the world to imagine being one.

 

In the words of John Lennon and Malcolm X, with liberties to merge ideas:

“If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the sixties, that’s his problem (Lennon) … I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation” (Malcolm X).

Observing Humanity at Ease

Driving along the highway this morning, I came upon a woman walking alone on the side of the road. I found her to be an odd sight, it was raining, there wasn’t a sidewalk per se, and she was walking away from an industrial region of the city. I looked around to see a stalled vehicle, or something to indicate why she was walking in the rain, with a phone to her ear, not looking particularly stressed but out of sync with her reality.

I then wondered how I might possibly know her reality, what her life was, why she would be walking in the first place, and finally why I would be wondering about this stranger on the road in the early morning hours. My first immediate thought was this was a woman walking by herself in an unfamiliar area. The first thing that went through my mind was she was vulnerable. I thought about whether or not she was safe. My next thought was I had no idea what her life was, and perhaps this was a daily routine she employed to walk to work, and she was just on the phone occupying her time on a typical walk. I then thought about my own world.

How often do I walk alone in an unfamiliar area to get from one place to another? I usually have my car, and if I’m somewhere that is not routine, I’m perhaps on my bicycle exploring, or vacationing with a purpose to go wherever I do happen to land. I wondered about the routine of our lives, how compact and determined our lives may be, without a lot of risk for adventure beyond planned events. In my eyes, this woman was on a journey of unusual circumstances, and perhaps I was making my noting of her presence far more impactful than it was.

I couldn’t help think about how purposely safe our lives are in today’s society. Though we have anxiety in our choices, our risks, and our opportunities, in general, I believe our lives are fairly preserved with always familiar protective boundaries. We are not often found in places of risk, or spontaneity that might upset the natural scheme of things, we call our reality. At least that was the overwhelming feeling I got when encountering this human being, walking in the rain, talking on her telephone, along a busy highway feet trampling the gravel where no walkway existed.

I wonder sometimes, what are the circumstances of our lives that help create the burden of anxiety we sometimes carry around with ourselves. For me, I have the opportunity to recognize addictions to be a major piece of what compels my inner thinking when contemplating my decisions. In the case of the woman on the highway, there was a time when I might be compelled to stop and ask where she was going, part of a ploy to find mutual attraction in the moment.

I wonder how it is we find ourselves in the trappings of creating visible shields to protect our lives from the society around us. We don’t wish to be judged or thrown into a category of miscreant. We wish only to be seen in the best light, and though this person I encountered on the highway probably lives an extremely normal life, in this one moment I placed her in a completely different world, one filled with a bounty of suspicious analysis that helps us the observer feel we are doing right in our own lives. At least that was my takeaway for myself on this rainy day in autumn.

Perhaps a sunny day with temperatures in the 80’s might have presented a more plausible observation. Today though, I am reminded just how sheltered our lives have become where it is an abnormal sight to see a human being walking along a busy highway with no visible means of explanation beyond their existence.

Fortunately, I have enough gasoline in my tank to get me from point A to B, preserving my stake in this societal machinery we plan our lives around.

Validation

Is it a want, a need,

a purpose,

defines the living soul,

the eyes of which,

a world may rely upon

to assist

simple understanding.

 

The manner we posture,

a walk, a glance, an utterance,

measured by one,

thought of as many

aspects –

how an introduction

might manifest

an outcome.

 

If by allowance,

a human being may

settle personal desire

within the structure

our normalcy suggests,

would might that insecurity,

begin a confidence,

well managed

in peace.

 

For a desired response,

to our musings

our careful scrutiny,

a passion to rather than pretend,

more assuredly demand

a satisfaction,

validation,

aforementioned affirmation,

perhaps provides,

sweet energy,

in life,

a determination

met by all eyes,

their eyes,

everyone has

many sets of …

 

I’s.

 

 

Finding Voice

I walked outside and screamed at the bottom of my driveway,

only because I knew no one would notice,

well, they did, and their doors shut,

I stood in my neighborhood and felt completely alone.

 

The manicured lawns,

similarly styled rose gardens,

the roof repair and invisible fences,

street signs that suggested we all slow down.

 

I glanced around and decided to scream outloud again,

more doors shut,

the street seemed to empty in a silence

more apparent than I’d noticed before my unravel.

 

I stood there for a long time

watched kids on their bicycles take the corner before

having to coast past the man at the end of the driveway,

I realized for the first time I might have been noticed.

 

I walked back up to my garage,

played some music while drilling some wood,

the sweat on my brow, I wiped with my forearm,

I glanced at the street, a squad rode by … I waved.

Philando Castile

castile

NY Daily photo credit

I recently told a friend of mine I have sometime wished I was black, and as the words left my mouth, the expression on his face indicated to me he was immediately offended. I knew I’d made a horrific presumption, and felt compelled to find him a little later on to continue our dialogue.  I wasn’t really sure what I was asking, but he sat me down and asked me a question.

He said, ‘as you sit in that chair, do you feel like you would be where you are, as a black man, including your personality and everything you are today?’

I had to think about the question. I had to get past trying to find the right answer and really think about how I was going to respond. I did not know what my answer could possibly be because I have never been a person of color. I have always been white.

This afternoon, when I first heard the news of the verdict in the shooting of Philando Castile, I felt immediately sick to my stomach. For a year I have replayed that viral video in my mind, imagining only one outcome. I believed the officer would be found guilty of manslaughter. I thought it was an easily defined case. I felt like I had come to know Philando through all the news reports and the expose’s of his life and the stories his community had expressed of who he was in our society. But I forgot one simple truth. He was a black man pulled over for a routine traffic stop. He was suspected of being involved in a robbery based upon his description. The only solid evidence that suggested he had been involved in the burglary was the color of his skin.

If that had been me, a white guy, with a gun pointed at my body by a peace officer, I am willing to bet, I could have said everything Philando expressed in the final minutes of his life, and I could have reached with my right arm and found my I.D. without the officer feeling compelled to discharge seven bullets into my body. This officer didn’t simply fire a couple of rounds, He fired seven times at point blank range. And there in that moment, while his girlfriend recorded the whole incident, Philando Castile died.

Justice seemed evident in this case, I didn’t even imagine the jury would take as long as they did to come back with a verdict. I only imagined it would be an open and shut case. That was until I saw the jury selection. I knew that when we had a jury of over 20 white people and two people of color, the case for Philando had taken a dangerous turn. I knew that when the officer was coached to cry in the witness stand, Philando’s integrity was in trouble.

I also knew I couldn’t get out of my car as a white man and express my sorrow and rage to any person of color without coming off patronizing. So instead, I called another friend, and told him he was the first person that came to my mind. Now this friend asked me if I was surprised by the verdict. I think I waffled my answer and said something like, “Well, yeah, I guess, well no, well I’m just sad.”

He agreed with my sentiments, and then began to speak of the systemic failure of our society to recognize the inherent discrimination of the African- American culture. Interestingly, he didn’t blame the cop that gunned down an innocent man. Instead he talked about how our society (his African-American culture) has to become proactive in changing the mindset of how we cope with our discrimination. He immediately prayed that there would be no acting out and a peaceful protest might occur.

I agreed with him and thanked him for letting me listen to his ideals, those of which I have always respected and believed. I finished the call, and sat in my car, and thought about what I would do next. All I could think about was how sad I was with the outcome of the day’s events. All I could do was feel like a white guy trying to wrap my head around this horrific tragedy. I still don’t have any answers, except only to say I’m sorry Philando, I am truly sorry this happened to you.