How Malcolm X Taught Me to Listen

Racism -- the insidious disease, the implicit bias, the unwritten rules that govern our lives -- won't be fixed by a grand jury alone. We have to take responsibility for the cultural practices that let racism thrive.
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I felt nervous. Anxious. Maybe even a little afraid. It was the middle of the day and I was alone in a grocery store parking lot. A group of boys were walking towards me. I was 16-years old, a white girl, and the group was all boys of color.

As they made their way towards me, I asked myself: "would I feel nervous if this was a group of white boys?" I knew the answer was no. I immediately started to relax, and calm down. My fears disappeared. The boys didn't even glance my way as they walked past me.

I wrote about the experience in the weekly journal I kept, on assignment for my high school English class. I journaled about how I experienced my racism in that moment, about how skin color impacted my perceptions, creating irrational fears and anxieties of "the other." When I got my assignment back, I was shocked to read that my teacher, a white woman, commented on the entry, telling me that I was right to be afraid.

I remembered this moment of my own racial awakening when I learned that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri spoke of how he feared the black, unarmed teenager. Wilson's fears have been ruled to be justified, not racist.

That same year in high school, I joined a student advisory group at school. Our job was to be a student voice on high school policy issues and we sat at the table with parents, teachers and the principal. One issue we discussed was dress code. Administrators were proposing a change. No longer would students be able to wear black pants or shorts with white T-shirts, specifically white T-shirts with a crease down the middle, just like they had been pulled from their package. I thought this was ridiculous and I reminded the group that I often wore white T-shirts with black shorts to school. A kindly parent turned to me and said sweetly, "Honey, this rule isn't for you." The rule was being made to target Latino boys.

It was a pivotal year for me, racially. Raised in a small beach town in Orange County, California, I had attended private Christian schools and been home schooled until I transferred into the public high school. San Clemente was predominantly white and Latino, the town mostly working class with some gated, highly affluent enclaves.

When I entered high school, I went to school with black kids for the first time. San Clemente is also a military town, adjacent to Camp Pendleton, a major marine base. Pendleton was a diverse place and kids went to school on base until they were in high school. It was on the public high school campus that the military culture first met the beach one. Walking the outdoor halls, I started noticing that many of the black boys were wearing shirts bearing the image of a black man with a large "X" across the front. I had no idea what that shirt meant.

Strolling down Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente's quaint, bougainvillea-laced Spanish-style main street, I passed the local bookstore and saw the cover for "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" staring out at me. I took a leap and guessed that this Malcolm X may be one and the same with the guy on the T-shirts I kept seeing at school. I bought the book and started to read, often on the beach, in my bikini. I got taunted, teasingly asked if I was a "N**** lover". I told my friends to screw off. I playfully kicked sand at them.

By the time I was done with the book, I was mad that I had never learned about such an important person in American history through any of my schooling. When I complained to the principal at my former Christian junior high school, he invited me to come teach a class on Malcolm X myself.

I accepted his offer. On my 16th birthday, me, a white girl, who had only read a book and had no black friends to speak of, spent the day teaching mostly white junior high kids at a small, private, Christian school about Malcolm X in their history class. It was 1992, the year Denzel Washington starred as the leader in the major motion picture directed by Spike Lee. I wanted to help the students see things differently, through his eyes.

I have no idea if I succeeded. I don't remember what I said, only that I tried to bribe them all with chocolates so that they would listen to me.

My own personal experience with the impact of racism continued over the years. In my early twenties I started a nonprofit, Exhale, to provide women who have abortions with the nonjudgmental support I didn't find after my own. Two of the five Exhale co-founders were Latina. Before we opened our talkline service, one of my Latina co-founders and I went to a meeting at a local abortion clinic to tell them about our plans. When we arrived together for the meeting on the administrative floor of the building, the clinic manager, a white woman, shook my hand and welcomed me, then turned to my co-founder and directed her to the abortion clinic downstairs. Because she was Latina, the manager assumed my co-founder was a patient who was on the wrong floor.

After the recent public unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama noted that when it comes to their experiences of the police, "communities of color aren't just making these problems up." He's right. There are the written rules and policies that are supposed to apply to everyone, and then there is what happens in real life, the social norms and cultural practices of racism. Because I'm white, some rules, like a high school dress code, don't apply to me. And, because I'm white, it is assumed I'm supposed to be on the executive floor and that to be afraid of a group of brown boys isn't racist, it's justified.

Reading "Malcolm X" taught me to question my own racial fears, to see the world through another's eyes. He taught me to listen to experiences different from my own.

In their protests in Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, across the country and around the world, black people are shining a light, showing America a difficult truth: the promise of justice is not being fulfilled in their communities.

This is really hard to hear. And yet, we must listen extra carefully.

Racism -- the insidious disease, the implicit bias, the unwritten rules that govern our lives -- won't be fixed by a grand jury alone. We have to take responsibility for the cultural practices that let racism thrive. Let's start by listening. Let's make sure the hidden stories of what it's like to be black and interact with law enforcement are heard. With black voices and leadership as our guide, we can work together to fulfill the promise of justice and equality that America has promised black communities.

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