A man jumped out from behind a subway pole at me while I was absorbed in my cell phone late this evening. I jumped, startled. He started to ask me about whether or not an F train was coming, and then, mid-sentence, said:
“Wait, why did you jump? Why are you scared?”
“Are you scared because I’m a BLACK MAN?”
I started to say, “Well, actually, you scared me because you jumped out at me,” but he shook his head and said,
“Man, why are all white people so afraid?”
I looked him directly in the eye and I said,
He stopped, said “Wait, what?”
“You’re right,” I said, holding his gaze.
I wanted to go into more. Talk about why I was startled, talk about how I (hoped) I was on the same side, that we needed to work on this. But we didn’t engage in a conversation. My admission of him being right shook him up.
He started laughing and couldn’t stop. Doubled down on the subway platform, holding his stomach, laughing at the fact that I told him he was right, white people are afraid of black people.
I’m willing to bet that very few people look him in the eye and acknowledge his truth — a truth that’s poignant for all black men. We jump to defense.
He looked at me and said,
“Damn, well, at least you admit it.”
“You know, I respect that.”
Why are we so afraid of having these conversations?
I share this because I think so often we jump into defense, into saying something else, into not wanting to be wrong (or worse, we don’t want to ever think or believe that we could “be racist.”)
There’s space, however, to admit things that are happening (and wrong) without having to also speak about individuals in particular being racist. It’s too soon, it’s too scary, and individually, we don’t understand the implications of what that would mean. What would it mean to admit that we’re all subtilely racist, or biased?
A deeper look at the research suggests that we already do have subtle biases ingrained in each of us, and that most people in the United States, regardless of color, are more prone to associate white people with words like “beautiful” and “talented” and it’s harder for us to match those same words with black faces. There is bias in all of us from our cultural and institutional upbringing, and it’s something we’re not speaking up about or owning.
(If you want to know more about this, research the “Implicit Association Test,” or watch this 8-minute video about how racism is still prevalent today to get an understanding of what institutional racism really means and why it matters).
But before that, even though I am diving into all of this, learning, discerning, crying, and being here — before that, I want to pause.
Because before that, there’s the simple act of witnessing someone in their truth, in our collective truth, in saying: “Yes, I hear you.”
And “Yes, this is a problem.”
And “Yes, we need to talk about it and do things about it.”
So much of human existence is a cry to be heard, to have someone hear you and finally say, yes — your truth is relevant. It matters. What you’re experiencing is true.
This is what Thich Naht Hahn sign says is Deep Listening, the art of listening so fully we let people release their worries, when we let people be heard.
I am hear, listening and witnessing.
I AM joining the conversation.