My community has expanded considerably since last Sumner. Following the events in Ferguson and a local event in my state where a teen was tasered by police in an egregious abuse of power, I joined with others to express my outrage and work for change. In order to do that, it was necessary to venture into unknown territory both literally and figuratively. My previous experience in Hartford was limited for the most part to the route I took to work, the public library, a local stage company, a few restaurants, City Hall, the Legislative Office Building / State Capitol and a few other destinations where friends would gather for socializing or political activities. I’ve since discovered new neighborhoods – neighborhoods that are home to the police station, community black churches and private businesses where I’ve never shopped, neighborhoods where my face is the minority presence. The more time I spend there, the more familiar I become with the area and the less I am able to dismiss these places as separate from my immediate life and concerns. They are the neighborhoods of my expanding community and so have taken on personal as well as political significance.
The most remarkable “unknown territory” has been the territory of certain ideas, introspection, and self discovery. I’ve entered both personal and social media conversations about racial bias, white privilege, individual responsibility within the broader system of institutional racism and the call by some for white America to remain quiet long enough to really listen to what black America is saying. What distinguishes my current conversations from those of the past is that they are now inter-racial. New perspectives demand intentional, invigorated and discomfited listening if they are to lead us anywhere. My reaction to these conversations has evolved over time. They have run the gamut from defensive to open, loud protestations to quiet thought.
I’ve written about perspective before and it is imperative that it be kept in front of us in any conversation about race, racism and the most effective ways to produce meaningful change. People with different experiences have perspectives that must be known and understood in order to respond in any meaningful way. I offer a few examples here:
1. Property damage during the “riots” in Ferguson and Baltimore – senseless destruction or a last, seething attempt by citizens living in neglected and brutalized communities to be heard?
2. Riots vs. uprisings – have we recently witnessed baseless acts of looting and destruction or have we witnessed contributions to a revolution against marginalization, the militarization of police forces in poor urban centers and the denial of equal opportunity to millions of citizens?
3. Patience – is it more reasonable to expect generation after generation of marginalized communities to wait for change or should we be thinking about how in any situation, there is a breaking point at which waiting is no longer an option?
4. “They” – who are they? Are they black? Are they women? Are they LBGT? Are they physically challenged? Are they minimum wage earners who have no hope of seeing the arrival of a better life? Do “they” have a story to tell that others have never considered? How does our own personal history and experience determine the limits of our understanding?
Attending a panel discussion several nights ago, I was astounded to hear that the town I live in was identified as one of the towns here in CT to most engage in racial profiling during traffic stops. The relatively new police station was built on the Wethersfield / Hartford line. Had I heard about this a year ago it would have angered me simply because racial profiling anywhere is a disgrace. Now, given my expanding community, it feels more like an assault against MY community on both sides of the town line. One of the panelists, a black clergyman who is among the people from whom I’ve been learning about perspective and active listening, told of more than one instance when he was stopped in Wethersfield. Unlike a year ago, this is now personal.
Discovering new territory certainly has its dangers. We run the risk of hearing things we don’t want to hear. We may hear that either as individuals or as a group, white people must take responsibility for a system that is for many, dysfunctional. If responsibility for having built the system seems far fetched, responsibility for participation in that system without trying to change it is not. Listening and consideration must both be part of the plan for moving ahead.