“What are your plans for the weekend, ladies?” the Costco employee asks my daughter and me as he looks over my receipt on the way out.
“Oh, maybe hiking,” I say.
He shows immediate concern. “Not near any of the fires, I hope.”
We live in California. At least three major fires are in full force at the moment.
“No, no, down near Malibu,” I reassure him.
“Well, that is good. You take care.”
What a wonderful, neighborly conversation my daughter and I had with this man. Quick, but still long enough for human compassion.
After my daughter and I were settled in my car, I took my first bite of strawberry sundae before confessing to her, “sometimes during those types of conversations, I just want to say to a Black man, ‘I am so sorry about everything. It is all awful. I hate the world the way it is. I hope your life is okay. I’m glad we can just be human beings to one another.’”
My daughter looked at me with surprise. “Mom, that would be very disrespectful to him.”
I know that talking to a random stranger about race relations would be shocking and, probably, a disrespectful action. I have no idea how he feels about the subject. However, my heart hurts every day knowing that my face is part of the problem even when I am trying to be part of the solution.
I believe I am fortunate. I live in a highly diverse Los Angeles suburb. My street has families from all races and nationalities. I feel safe when I walk my dog down the street. I pray that all of my neighbors do, too.
However, when we fly back to the Midwest where I grew up, my daughters are quick to note how much paler people on the planes get as we travel east. As a kid in the 70s–80s in small towns in Missouri, I did not meet a Black person until I was in my teens. I did not meet a Hispanic person until I was in college, let alone anyone from another country. This is in itself is not a bad thing. Just a fact of the vastness of the United States. I do not believe most people are consciously bigoted, but ignorant of others. Taco Bell is not true Mexican food. Yet, if one has never experienced a tamale made from someone from or a descendent from a Latin American country, one will not appreciate the difference. (And, are they missing out!) Watch enough Law and Order, NCIS (pick one), Blue Bloods, Elementary, or other cop show, and you’ll be convinced that white, male cops are good and black, especially males, are bad.
The first-hand experience is often touted as a helpful solution to understand other’s views of the world. Let them see the world from “their shoes.” I can attest that this works. Growing up with a father who was a social worker—way before there were realistic rules—my father would sometimes have to literally bring his work home with him. I remember him once telling my mom to turn the hamburgers into chili because he was bringing home six kids for the night. From a 17-year-old to an infant, I quickly learned what hunger looked like. Yet, the hunger still had my hair color and eyes.
Exposure is necessary for our world. The popular saying of “our world is shrinking because of technology,” is not true enough. Until we bump shoulders with others that are outside of our neighborhoods, we do not understand our place. My biggest fear currently is the nationalism movement in our country. I love America. I believe Broadway is magical, especially at night. The Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans will knock your socks off. Highway One is a beautiful drive but not for the faint of heart. Yet, with all these amazing aspects, America is only a small part of the world.
If I could give a gift to every high school graduate, I would give a month-long world trip. As Americans, we have a history of looking inward, in all ways. We need to recognize that while we are amazing, we are also part of a bigger picture. The next generation can be part of the solutions of the climate crisis by observing how other countries are being impacted and how they are finding solutions. Gender and race equality that we struggle so much over, has champions in other parts of the world, namely Scandinavian countries, Nicaragua, and New Zealand. We need our young people to bring these ideas home.
Contact with the unknown puts us out of our comfort zone. Yet, the more we strive to experience the world as others do, through exposure and our imagination, the more we can have empathy for their place in the world. I cannot say I understand what my Costco friend experiences, but I can try to imagine. Because I can imagine, I plan to vote for those who will change police policies. I will speak up for injustices of all types. And, I will be kind to everyone I meet.