Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. -James Baldwin
Two years ago, Eric and I traveled to Chicago for a gardening convention. He and his business partner had a booth, advertising their latest product. The convention was held on Navy Pier, an enormous touristy landmark jutting into Lake Michigan.
The booth was located at the end of a long hall, adjacent to the rear doors. The vendors were allowed into the show before and after hours to set up and collect themselves before the buyers arrived. Security guards manned the entrances, assuring only paid attendees entered. With our proximity, I figured I’d introduce myself to our guards, since we’d be together for the next two days. Wade, our favorite, was a mild-mannered black man with an eye that had a mind of its own. His answers were Yes, Ma’am or No, Ma’am. As much as I tried, there wasn’t a lot of information I was able get out of Wade.
The final day, the doors opened later than the previous morning, catching a few attendees unaware. While Eric and I were preparing, we heard a commotion coming from Wade’s direction. A woman alongside her silent co-worker blared obscenities at Wade for not allowing them entrance. Of course, he had to take it, there was no placating the woman, she cursed and railed at him while he with his polite and courteous manner had to softly say, Yes, Ma’am, No Ma’am.
As she wound down and huffed away, I approached Wade inquiring how he was. Resigned, he shrugged his shoulders and sighed. In his patient, soft-spoken manner he replied, “Ma’am, I just have to take it, there’s nothing I can do. I need this job.” I shook my head, clucked some ineffective words of condolence and outrage, while internally seething at the injustice and cruelty delivered to an innocent man, working his best to garner a paycheck.
This trip to Chicago happened just a week after the events in Ferguson. My understanding of justice changed forever when I learned of the circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s death – the horrible end to his life nothing I, nor my family will ever experience. I awakened to the injustice of my privilege and the passivity of my white culture that continues to remain blind to the consistent tragedy and terror black and brown people face in this nation. I had no comprehension of the rampant racism that claims the lives and dignity of so many American citizens. I still don’t.
In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Elizabeth Gilbert detailed the beauty of inviting curiosity. She stated curiosity is a gentle and forgiving friend. Curiosity is intimate, lightly tapping us on the shoulder inviting us to take a closer look. Often the invitation seems random, haphazard, yet the acceptance of curiosity renders a spirit of inquisitiveness and interest. “Interesting people are interested people”, she concluded.
Our final evening in Chicago, Eric and I meandered the Chicago River walkway. The stunning, illuminated architecture was reflected in the calm water’s surface, while all manner of people basked in the summer’s evening. My head and heart were full of curious questions and observations about the city, the clear class distinctions, the challenging of my own privilege and good fortune. I felt my gut flip, a hesitation, as we approached a group of five young black men sitting on the concrete steps. After we passed, I turned to Eric and wondered out loud what these guys must think of Ferguson and Michael Brown’s violent death. I wanted to hear firsthand their opinions and thoughts. Eric shrugged and with nonchalance said, “Let’s go ask them.” Surprised, I agreed and we turned around.
With rattling nerves, I stood before the group, a tentative and wide smile on my face. I started, “Hi there. Do you have a minute? I have a question.” They nodded and encouraged me to continue. “Clearly I’m white (chuckle chuckle) and this is all new to me, but I would love to get your thoughts on Ferguson.”
For the next half-hour we were educated and entertained by these intelligent and aware young men, all close friends in their early twenties. They discussed the police violence in Chicago and how they each owned unique but similar tales of being profiled and treated violently. They didn’t agree on everything, some gave more grace and understanding to the police departments in both Ferguson and Chicago, some didn’t even know what happened.
What if we approached people different than us, first with kind interest and curiosity? What if we instead of adopting stereotypical thinking, motivated by bias, we sought to understand another? What if we were curious of our own reactions, paying close attention to the flips of our gut, choosing to override our fear (assuming we are in a safe space)? I know it is easier said than done, and sometimes we just don’t have the time or opportunity, but I wonder if we were open, if our eyes were open, we might see more opportunities than we realize. I suspect our curiosity through well-timed, compassionate and humble questioning, while listening with intent and interest for answers, might allow for those of us with good fortune and privilege to be able to empathize and relate a bit more.
But before we do anything, we need soft hearts and generous souls. The onus is upon us, the white and privileged, the heterosexual and cis-gender to educate ourselves, to seek understanding, to gain empathy.
These days are filled with stories of the misunderstood, people who are on the receiving end of great brutality that comes from the narrow mindedness of the afraid. If I’m able, I want to do my work now, to check my fear, and to do this work to the best of my ability. I want to be curious.