[This is a transcript of a video I recorded after conversation with my family — about the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd] https://youtu.be/3MtoLk0HTL8]. ; Artwork by Leah Merahn
Growing up I really didnt know any Black people — we lived in a a homogeneous white neighborhoood and even college was predominately white. However, as a white adult, I grateful that my family and social circles are very diverse.
This began largely by circumstance; my early career was in organizations and geographies in which I was a minority, and my majority non-white colleagues became friends. Through them, I frequented certain restaurants and clubs and events which happened to patronized by people of color and met them; there was nothing deliberate about it, it just happened.
I remember one of my work friends telling me: “Steven you don’t understand, Black people live in two worlds. You only live in one.” At some level I knew this was true but wanted to understand it better. She responded by inviting me to her family reunion. Her family was amazing; I listened and learned. Over time, I began to see things that had clearly been there before but I had completely missed, like all-white business meetings where people often editorialized about people of color, or the blatant disrespect of someone saying, “you’re not really Black” to a Black colleague as if it were a complement, or a person of color in management assumed to be a lower level employee ‘by accident’; I could no longer even pretend to ignore how people of color are treated or considered, even by friends or family.
I am also married to a Black woman; who I love deeply as a person, but also because of her Blackness: the cultural roots and perspective on the world she brings as a person of color. We have been harassed, by both white people and black people, for our relationship. I am in awe of the way she manages the challenges of ‘respectability politics” in both the workforce and as a parent, and I am saddened that is a force that has shaped her life.
We have two children who, while technically “mixed”, are Black in America. As the White father of Black children, I can tell you that my experience as a parent is a little different from other White parents in my child’s school; my son has already had people touch his hair without permission. They, and I, have to straddle two worlds; their childhood is very different than their white peers. They hear things and see things and know things that their white friends have the privilege of not hearing, never knowing and never seeing: like rehearsing “show me your hands”…or practicing NOT reaching for their pockets when asked “do you have ID”. Or learning to be on constant surveillance for dog whistles that indicate special danger.
As a physician, if a patient tells me they have pain, I don’t get to deny their experience. What I do get to do is evaluate the evidence, determine my understanding of their condition and the extent to which I am willing to intervene. I may not choose to intervene to the extent they desire but doing so does not deny their pain. While some do, that doesn’t make it right.
In business, it is the customer who determines the reality of a brand promise; the manufacturer really doesn’t get to have an opinion about the extent to which they have delivered on their assertions.
I only say this to make one point very clear: if you are white, if you are ‘Caucasian”, you don’t get to decide whether or not there is oppression or tacit segregation or social injustice, prejudice and disproportionate risk for Black people. You don’t even get to have an opinion about the extent to which White society has delivered on their assertions about the liberty, safety and opportunity of Black people; only Black people get that right.
What you do have is the opportunity to listen and learn, evaluate the evidence and decide whether you understand their condition and determine the extent to which you are willing to intervene. But you don’t get to deny the reality of Black people, even if you wish it wasn’t so.
All human beings are not the same; we are all quite unique in skills and experience, ancestry and culture, values and orientations. Some of these differences, especially but not limited to skin color, have been used historically to create inequities of social and economic power. There are inherent societal biases and associated risks, to both quality of life and life itself, for people of color in the United States. As such, anyone who says, “I don’t see color” is not seeing the world for what it is. Trying to be colorblind is not the path to equity when the playing field is not level.
The key to our societies success is whether, in the face of all those differences, we can all be safe, and have the same opportunity to succeed in the world on our own terms; but everyone’s slice of the “liberty and justice pie” has to be the same size as others. If it’s not, we are all at risk. No one should be “more free” or “more safe” (or less represented) than any other of their fellow citizens.