When my mother was four years old, she met a black person for the first time. After shaking the woman's hand, she looked at her own to see if any of the "black" had rubbed off. She shared this story with me when I was growing up to illustrate what a white world she was raised in. But she always went on to talk about how her father would frequently bring folks home to dinner -- black and white, friends and strangers. Everyone was welcome at Russell's table.
My parents raised me to be colorblind. Everyone was the same, measured by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, just as Dr. King had dreamed. The truth was, growing up where we lived in Texas, these values were rarely put to the test. The only diversity in my neighborhood was the Schwartzes and the Forests, the two Jewish families. At Westwood Junior High School there were only three black students in my entire class, and not many more in the whole school. But my parents had led me to believe that the black kids were just like me, that we were all having the same experience.
So I had to remind myself of this when the mayor of Ferguson made the infuriating comment: "There's not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson...That is the perspective of all residents in our city. Absolutely." Oh, he thinks everyone is having the same experience. He thinks everyone is just like him.
Remember the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant? Each one feels a different part of the large animal and as such each of them experiences a different creature -- and then the kicker, when a sighted man walks by and describes the whole animal and they each realize they're blind.
That's how I felt as a young adult when I participated in a college seminar on institutional and personal racism in America. This wasn't the history of slavery or the civil rights movement that I had learned about in high school. This was a whole different creature. I had to apply for the class taught by Professor James Vance, an African American (his term) and former race specialist in the U.S. Navy who also worked as an investigator for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Professor Vance personally selected his students (thus ensuring the diversity of the class in every way), by reading our essays about why we wanted to enroll and what we thought about race. I learned very quickly that the black (and Latino) students in the class were not "just like me," that their experiences were not the same as mine. Yes, we were all attending the same exclusive, liberal arts university, but I wasn't routinely stopped by campus security if I walked back to my dorm after dark. No one ever asked how I got in to this school, or checked my bag on the way out of the campus store, or challenged why I sat with other white kids in the cafeteria. The weight of this new knowledge, or ignorance, was crushing.
And I began to look at things differently, and still do. I start by stepping into someone else's shoes -- the sneakers of a young, black man walking the streets of Ferguson. He's probably feeling fear and anger. The boots of a police officer tasked with keeping a protest peaceful. Interesting, he's probably feeling fear and anger, too. And then the mayor's loafers. Fear and anger and... ignorance. Fear and anger are emotions that everyone is entitled to. But there is no excuse for ignorance.
So I showed up every week for what never failed to be a very intense, uncomfortable, enlightening class. And I spent my time outside of class reading. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." And at the very least I wanted to learn. I read: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Invisible Man, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Bluest Eye, Native Son, Sister, Outsider, A People's History of the United States.. I read books with covers depicting people who didn't look like me, authors I'd never heard of, endings that were often not happy.
Twenty plus years later I live in the melting pot that is Los Angeles, but I reside and work in environments where I can count the number of black people on one hand. And many of the white liberals, like myself, who populate these worlds, are concerned about Ferguson, but talk about what's going on there like it's a far away place. The same way we talk about Ukraine, or Iraq, or the Gaza Strip. Slightly removed. Incredulous. Clucking our tongues.
Which brings me back to reading and books. Most of us read in our comfort zone. Our favorite authors. Our friends' recommendations. The bestseller list. So here's the challenge I present to you today: Read something outside your comfort zone. Choose a book that doesn't share your perspective, but challenges it. Read a "boring" history book that you would never normally choose, but that might help you understand the world beyond your own a little better. Read as a political act.
To begin to understand Ferguson, start with the list of books mentioned above. Or check out this great list from Left Bank Books in St. Louis, or #fergusonsyllabus. Because it's not enough to stand around clucking our tongues and talking about how sad it is, how terrible it is, wondering out loud what can be done. While we do, these kinds of things continue to happen. Just last week a Latino colleague of mine shared that driving home from work he'd been pulled over by local sheriffs -- guns drawn, no reason given. These things are happening in all of our communities. And our water cooler talk and Facebook statuses don't bring about change, only knowledge does. The kind of knowledge that galvanizes action.
So read outside your comfort zone, then act: Lobby for body cameras for police officers. Advocate for the reform or removal of the Pentagon's 1033 Program. Donate to the National Lawyers Guild to help them provide legal observers to protests in Ferguson.
And let's talk to each other about race. We are not all having the same experience.