I’m not a black man. Never have been. Never will be. I have never grown up black in America. I’ve never been raised by a father who lived through the 1960s Civil Rights movement. I have never sat on the knee of a grandfather who stood thirsty before a Whites Only water fountain or who had to give up his seat on the bus to a white man. I have never been followed through a department store because I look like a possible thief. No one has ever crossed the street to avoid me because I had a hood drawn up over my head. People don’t hit the lock on the car door when I walk by. Because I’ve never been a Black American.
President Obama, yesterday, in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict commented that “it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that that doesn’t go away.” He explained, “those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
I have my own set of experiences that have shaped my world view, made me who I am. Those experiences color my responses, reactions, and feelings to and about certain events and situations. I can’t know how I would’ve reacted to the Zimmerman verdict as a young black man or as the mother of a young black man. But I can imagine that my feelings would’ve been different because they would’ve been colored by my experiences as an African-American. And I know those experiences are different than mine as a white woman.
People all over social media and IRL are fired up. The “conversation” about this verdict is heated–and divisive. I see African-Americans declare justice hasn’t been served–and never will be for Blacks in America. I see them expressing fear for the young black men in their lives. I see white people, in turn, defensively claiming that these fears are unjustified–an overreaction because this isn’t about race. “Why is it always about race with these people?” they ask each other, annoyed. Our justice system worked exactly as it should, they say. Black people, incredulous, respond: “How can you say this isn’t about race?! The justice system failed us.”
These responses illustrate very clearly the president’s point. They reflect the experiences of the people who make them. The president reminds us to take that into account. And we would do well to do just that. Instead of responding angrily or defensively when we don’t understand–instead of just arguing about it, we would do well to have a civilized conversation about it: “Why do you think the system failed? Why don’t you? Why do you think it’s about race? Why don’t you?”
We would do well to listen to one another, really listen. To try to understand, to empathize with one another, put ourselves in each others’ shoes. To try to understand, accept, and respect that people have different ways of knowing, doing, and being.