I do not presume to have arrived on the issue, or to be “woke.” I simply want to share with you what I have discovered on my own journey toward greater awareness of racism in America, and with my own participation in systems, both visible and hidden, that perpetuate it. I want to begin with two stories that might open us to an honest conversation about this sensitive issue.
The first story is about a colleague who shared with me an experience she had late one night while on a business trip in a major city. She had just finished a long meeting and was walking alone to her car in a dark, mostly empty parking lot. Once inside, she attempted to start her car, only to discover that the battery was dead. There she was, alone, with a car that wouldn’t start, in a dark parking lot, stranded in an unfamiliar city past midnight.
As she hunted for her roadside assistance card, she noticed an older model truck driving slowly through the lot. To her it seemed as if the truck was prowling in her general direction. She checked and rechecked the locks on the doors and tried again and again to start the engine. The truck slowly approached and finally came to a stop in front of her car. In the dim light of the parking lot, she could see a tall black man emerge from the truck holding what appeared to be a thick rope. Her heart raced as he walked slowly toward her car. Flushed with fear and panic, she fumbled for her phone and started to dial 911, when suddenly the man knocked on her windshield, held up a pair of jumper cables, and said, “I work maintenance here, ma’am. I noticed earlier that you’d left your headlights on. You don’t have to get out of the car. Just pop the hood and I’ll help you get started.”
All at once, her fear turned to relief, and then her relief turned to guilt. She wondered why she had been so afraid, and what her fear revealed about her unconscious beliefs and biases.
The second story is told by Dr. Kamau Bobb, who serves on the faculty at Georgia Tech and holds a global leadership position at Google. He was crawling along in rush hour traffic just before dusk, heading home after work, when red and blue lights suddenly flashed behind him. He pulled over, and the officer pulled over behind him. This, said Bobb, “is the singular moment in American life where Black men wish they were White women. This is the moment that drives fear into the hearts of Black people. Anything in the interaction with police can escalate to deadly outcomes… and there was no telling how this would go.”
The approaching office reached the back fender and put his hand on his gun. Bobb was now fearful. He rolled down the window as the office approached, and that was when he heard the voice: “Put your hands on the steering wheel where I can see them.” Bobb reached for his wallet, and again, he was ordered to put his hands on the wheel. Bobb says “For White people…who typically say that if you’ve done nothing wrong, everything will be fine, this is the moment they don’t understand. This is the terror moment…the moment of anxiety at fever pitch.”
After the arrival of another patrol car and several intense minutes of questioning and radio calls, the encounter ended without further escalation. But if you are Kamau Bobb, what do you do with the fear and humiliation of such an experience? Where does it go?
– From “A House Divided: Engaging the Issues through the Politics of Compassion” by Mark Feldmeir – Chalice Press