“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius
Last week was another one of those weeks of painful stories and alarming images. My heart breaks for my mentees who struggle with how to process the things they see and hear in the media, along with the divisive and hate-filled rhetoric that often permeates their Twitter and Facebook timelines. I have seen the damage firsthand while talking with confused young people looking for answers and witnessing arguments breaking out on social media between kids who begin drawing lines between each other based on the color of their skin. My heart breaks for my friends who worry about what to say to their black or brown sons and daughters, how to keep them from being at the wrong place at the wrong time or from behaving in a way that might be deemed “threatening”, resulting in a fatal interaction with law enforcement. My heart also breaks for the law enforcement officers who work so hard to keep themselves, their partners, and their communities safe amidst increased hostility and scrutiny.
This issue is so complex and nuanced and filled with emotion. When I look up at this mountain, it seems too daunting to move. But, as Confucius said, moving a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. So let me share some stories and things I have observed from my six years of mentoring kids, working with families, and having many deep and honest conversations about race with friends of all backgrounds and cultures. I think carrying stones begins by trying to understand.
My friend, John, is in his early 40s and is an African American man with dreads. He is a welder who goes into work at 4am. One morning on his way to work, he hit an icy patch on the Route 30 on-ramp. His car spun out and he ended up on the shoulder of the highway. Someone called to let police know and they came to assist. But the assistance began with officers questioning him if he had weapons or drugs in the car and trying to determine if he was driving under the influence. (The answer was no to all.) John was already shook up from the spin-out and worried if there was any unseen damage to his car, plus the fact that he was going to be late for work. Now he faced the anxiety of feeling under suspicion by the people who were supposed to be there to help him. This situation could have easily escalated. I understand it is the officers’ jobs to make quick assessments, but I also completely empathize with John’s frustration at being treated as a crime suspect rather than an accident victim. The reality is that if it were a white nurse heading into a hospital or even a white steelworker heading into the mill, the officers’ approach to the situation may have been different. It wasn’t until another car hit the exact same patch of ice and spun out in front of them all that the officers changed their approach from suspicion to one of concern.
This is just one example of story after story I could share of these kinds of police interactions with my friends or with the kids that I mentor, stories that cause me to think “My family or I probably would not have been treated that way in that situation.” In each case, police were just trying to do their job, but the underlying message of the interactions seemed to be, “First, I need to determine that you are not a criminal.” That is why there is so much frustration. That is why some African Americans say they live in a “different America” than those of us with white skin. There are no easy answers to this complicated issue, but solutions are born from first understanding.
In the summer of 2015, I took a young African American man I mentor to visit the campus of Miami University, my alma mater. I picked him up at his aunt’s house in Columbus. The 2 1/2 hour ride to Oxford went by quickly as we talked about all kinds of topics, from his deepening faith and involvement with his church to my experiences of being married for more than 25 years. He was relaxed and animated as we made our way west on I-70 and through the corn fields that lead to Miami. We parked the car and began walking the campus. There were only a few students there, but a fair amount of visitors, mainly white, well-dressed families with their prospective students clutching their Miami admissions folders. To me, everyone seemed friendly and, as we walked past families, I made eye contact and smiled or said hello. However, as we weaved through the red brick buildings, I could sense Keshawn’s demeanor changing drastically. He became much more stoic and it was difficult to get him to talk or smile. “Keshawn, your energy has changed so much,” I said as we ate a Toasted Roll (a Miami tradition) in the Student Center. “What’s going on?”
“I just feel like everyone is looking at me and thinking that I don’t belong here.” he said glumly.
Now I had been watching people too, paying attention to their reactions. I did not see the same thing Keshawn did. He is a handsome, studious-looking young man. What I saw was people who were trying to smile at him and who seemed to be looking at him encouragingly, as though they were glad he was a prospective student. However, he kept his eyes down and rarely made eye contact with them.
“Do you think you could be making assumptions about thoughts that people really aren’t thinking?” I suggested gently.
“I don’t know, maybe,” he said. “It’s just how I feel when I go somewhere and don’t see many black people.”
And that is the reality of “white privilege.” It doesn’t mean that white people don’t work hard for what they have or overcome difficult obstacles or face discrimination based on other factors, such as gender, religion, sexuality, being from the “wrong side of the tracks” etc. It just means that, if you are white, you can feel pretty comfortable that the color of your skin is not going to make you feel out of place, or under suspicion, or feared or disliked, in the majority of places in our country.
So, how do I carry stones? By having conversations with my African American mentees like I did with Keshawn that day, that he does, in fact, belong at Miami University. By sharing my “white person” perceptions and helping him analyze if things he has been told and taught as a young black man could be, in some cases, clouding his vision of how the world looks at him. By talking about his responsibility to try to stay open to relationships and opportunities instead of putting up walls based on potentially false assumptions about what people are thinking about him.
But I feel for Keshawn. He is navigating a complicated world that I will never be able to fully understand. It is a world where, on one hand, there are more opportunities than ever available to him and there are many people of all skin colors who want to help him succeed. On the other hand, he has “lived experience” of discrimination and is regularly seeing traumatizing video of unarmed men who look like him being killed by police, along with racial divisiveness populating his Twitter timeline. It is no wonder he has developed the ability to put up a wall. Yet, it is those walls that could prevent him from having access to more opportunities. That’s why what I do for him, and the many other kids I mentor, is so important. Whether it’s a college campus, a downtown restaurant, a local employer, a business meeting, or dressy dinner event, I take them with me and I say ,”You belong here.” It’s usually a little uncomfortable for them at first, but when they see the warm reception they usually get, they begin to understand that they really do belong there.
I mentor young adults from all different races and backgrounds. What’s best for all of them is a unified community and country. They are hurting and looking to the adults in their lives for direction, guidance and a meaningful way to make an impact. I think we could do a much better job as a country of teaching them how to carry stones.
As for me, I have developed a strong network of friends who also want to move this mountain. When we discuss these issues, I share my own frustration at the discrimination I have faced at times, when my motivation or sincerity is questioned as a “white woman trying to help black kids”. About two weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend, Kelly Williams, who is a gospel hip-hop artist known as Prodigal Son. He is doing amazing things in our community. When we first met, we immediately clicked because we shared the same vision and energy. The conversation is honest and comes easy. So while we ate, I complained to him about one of the “white woman” comments I heard had been said by a local activist following a community meeting.
“He was judging me just because of the color of my skin,” I said indignantly. “He doesn’t know me or what’s in my heart.”
Kelly looked at me with a smile and said “That’s what we go through every day,”
“Okay,” I said. “I get it.” Because he was right. And whether that judgment is real or what society has programmed us to believe people are thinking about us, it doesn’t feel good to feel like we are being judged by the color of our skin instead of the content of our soul.
Then we continued eating our lunch at the Canton Brewery while we talked about a new program we want to start to help with some of the most pressing issues we see kids of all skin colors facing in our community.
It is by having these honest conversations, suspending our judgment, helping each other work towards goals and overcome obstacles, sharing our connections and “social capital”, laughing together, and building and celebrating these relationships, that we will begin chipping away at the mountain.
So I encourage you to figure out a way that you can become more understanding, build more connections, carry more stones. It is up to all of us to help move this mountain for future generations.
One final note:
Keshawn (who’s name I changed to protect his privacy) chose to attend a different college, where he is thriving and on his way to earning a degree in computer science. I sent him this post in order to get his feedback and his okay to share the story.
Here was the text response I got last night…
“That brought back so many memories from that day. I think all kids need someone to tell them that they do belong. And my goal for this is for it to inspire a kid that was in my shoes, and do what I didn’t do and take a chance on that school that they think they do not belong at, have a positive mindset, and see where it takes them. But great piece, it’s interesting to see it from both perspectives, yours and mine. I love it. I’m sharing it.”
Keshawn is carrying stones. I could not be more proud of him.