Last week I wrote about taking on the pain of another. In the post, I said it means saying to another, “I want to hear about your life, let’s sit so I can hear what it’s like to be you.” I went through steps to help to connect and understand another person and their point of view. I wrote that post, really, because I wanted to delve more deeply into the racial divide that exists in our country. I know I said I would be sharing from colleagues and friends of mine and their perspective, but first I wanted to share why this topic has become so important to me.
Like most topics you see on the news, there exists a polarization on the topic. You’re either one side or the other, and typically conversations about race are heated, lacking empathy and understanding. For me, I first started to take notice of the racial divide when I live in Ohio. I noticed that there was one school, mainly white, and then 2 miles down the road there was a predominantly brown school. I didn’t need to do much at the time, other than mentally jot down questions I had about what I noticed. “Is it a good thing to maintain separation? Are there equal opportunities? Is there something that needs to be done? Why is there still separation?” The questions continued to come, and I decided to take a step that led to a little more diversity in my life, which led me back to Philadelphia. It was once back in Philadelphia that I chose to put myself in different situations, sometimes uncomfortable, to be able to understand those who were different from myself.
I found myself in graduate school, reading about diversity and inclusion, but it wasn’t the reading that hit home, it was classroom conversations and deeper friendships that opened my eyes. And although our country has an old wound that goes generations back, the issue of power linked to skin color is a universal wound. I remember when I served in Tijuana, I noticed one woman with particularly dark skin absolutely hated another woman with dark skin. At first I didn’t understand, but then I realized she was projecting her own pain onto that of the other women, hating the thing in herself that brought pain and shame in her own life. She talked down to that woman, excluded her, and acted as though she was a burden. It made me wonder and ask the questions, “How often do we project onto others our own unresolved pain?” But also as a societal question, "How do we put individuals in a position to feel the need to project, especially as it is linked to this topic?" You see, the conversation is not just about skin color, it's about privilege...and about the power (or lack of power) we assign to skin color.
The thing about the situation is that I might be able to write that story down and it might not mean much on paper, but the reason it impacted me so deeply is because the one being talked down to, shamed, and mistreated was my best friend while I lived in Mexico. It became less of a heady, “I see this problem,” to a real heartfelt “I feel this pain you’re experiencing. I don’t want my dear friend to be experiencing that.” So, I don’t enter into Black History Month hoping to create a debate of any sort, rather, it’s to be able to express an old wound our country has been carrying that continues to linger. I believe it lingers because of our need to protect ourselves, which keeps us in a state of “us” and “them.” I think it’s only when we choose to talk a walk across the bridge, to close the gap between “us” and “them,” that we can move forward.