Originally posted on May 30, 2020.
George Floyd. Christian Cooper. Two African American men, one killed by police officers and one targeted by a fellow citizen as a danger to her, because of the color of their skin. Their names and the images they conjure up for us are shocking yet eerily similar to images seen so often and experienced by too many in every community across this country.
Yesterday afternoon, May 29, 2020, a large group of people met in front of the Boone County Courthouse and then moved toward the Columbia Police Station to protest what happened this week in Minneapolis and to send the message “not here.” Let’s hope and pray we never see an image like that of George Floyd gasping for air, his neck under the knee of a police officer, coming out of Boone County. But, if that is our standard, if that is all we expect from our community, we will have missed the mark.
Over the years, I’ve attended many diversity training sessions, some organized by my work, some by my church. At one such training, we were divided into pairs, and I was fortunate to be paired with an African American woman, who was the pastor of one of the Historic Black churches here in Columbia. We went through several exercises together but the final one will remain with me always. We were asked to think about and then tell our partner of a time we were part of the “other” group and were treated differently because of that distinction.
After five minutes devoted to thinking about the issue, the facilitator told us to share with our partner. Because my brain had whirred during those five minutes, trying to come up with some time that had happened, I asked the Pastor to go first. She told me and later told the group, “it happens every day, many times every day. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “how often.”
The Pastor’s experiences are commonplace. And the difference between her experience and mine is also, regrettably, commonplace. Take the experiences of three of my friends in this community—Carla, Shelli and Jeff. Carla and Shelli are the Moms of boys and Jeff is the Dad of a son, who, like his Dad, is big and tall for his age. Carla’s son is older by over a decade than Shelli’s and Jeff’s. Shelli’s son, like Jeff’s, is big and tall for his age. Carla and Jeff are African Americans. Shelli is Caucasian. Carla, Shelli, and Jeff are all “white-collar” professionals, with leadership roles.
All three of my friends love their children and provide a host of educational and recreational opportunities for them, while still expecting them to live up to their parents’ expectations, from respecting their elders to wearing seatbelts in their cars. I suspect that the “house rules” for all three families look remarkably similar. Except for one huge difference. And, because of the age group, it is a stark contrast when you consider Carla’s son.
Carla and I talked a couple of years ago, right after one of the too-common stories about another person of color being stopped, being chased, being tased, being injured, being arrested, being killed. She told me that, when her son left the house in the evening to go out with his friends, her prayer was not that he enjoy himself. It was that he return home alive. The advice she gave him from an early age included how to interact with law enforcement.
My conversation with Jeff was similar. Jeff told me that the early childhood education provider for his son and later the school, had called him about his son’s behavior. The behavior they were concerned about was substantially like that demonstrated by other children in his child’s class, yet those other children had not been disciplined. Those children’s parents had not been called in. Those other families were white.
And this week, I was talking to Shelli, whose son is still in an early childhood education setting, about what has happened in Minneapolis and New York, and undoubtedly countless other places across this country just this week. And Shelli reflected that, as a Mom, she won’t have the same worries and fears that so many parents of color, like Carla and Jeff, have every single day.
When Shelli’s son is of an age to go out alone with his friends, she and her husband won’t have to tell their son how to behave when he gets stopped by law enforcement. They won’t have those fears, every time their son goes out to a movie, to a restaurant, to jog, to work, to pray, that he won’t come home alive. They won’t have to fight for their son in school because his behavior won’t cause someone to think that he is disruptive or violent.
A couple of years ago, the Boone County Community Services Department hosted an educational event to explore what is known as “implicit bias.” The speaker, Dr. Walter Gilliam, a leading researcher and educator about the impacts of implicit bias in early childhood education, spoke to community members about how implicit bias presents in that setting; its impact on children, and how to combat it.
Dr. Gilliam’s presentation echoed many of the presentations by community leaders like Nikki McGruder, the Director of the Inclusive Impact Institute. As Nikki once told Valerie Berta, as she grew up in a small community, she often felt like the “only” in the room and it wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood the layers of oppression that had created in her.
As Nikki has worked to help others in our community understand the forces of implicit bias, of racism, of privilege, she has focused, in part, on the children that she is raising. She said, “My children… Our children should not have to inherit a world where they have to dim their lights to make others feel comfortable. They will be their authentic selves walking in their truths all day every day.”
Children are so malleable. They absorb, like sponges, what we show them, what we teach them. As Lieutenant Cable said in the 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” “racism is not born in you! It happens after you’re born.” Cable then expresses his anguish, singing:
“You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught, from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear."
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
So, yes, be horrified by what happened in Minneapolis and New York. Become aware of our collective and individual implicit bias and work to eliminate it. And, most importantly, commit to a community that values diversity, a community in which every child is treated equally. That will be a good start.
Sincere wishes for your health and safety,