Back in my early days of management at CBS Radio, I temporarily shared an office with our National Sales Manager while our floor was being renovated. The office had no windows, making it feel more like a closet with barely enough room for two desks much less a five foot nine woman and a six foot two man with loud voices. But we managed.
Kevin and I got along well. We had started with the company around the same time. He had moved to Philadelphia from New York with his then pregnant wife to take the promotion. We were close in age, both were from families we were very connected to and both had high aspirations for our respective careers. We both liked to laugh, have fun and find the humor in whatever situations we met up with. We also shared that silent understanding that while it might not be enough to keep our jobs, my gender and his skin color helped to fill affirmative action quotas.
Sharing that tiny space for six months solidified our friendship. One day something had happened in the news and an innocent black man had gotten stopped by the police for no reason except that they thought he looked like someone who had indeed committed a crime. I couldn’t wrap my head around that stereotyping but Kevin could. He assured me it happened and it happened alot. He told me it had happened to him.
Kevin was a big guy with a stance much like my father had. When either was smiling they were like a big teddy bear. But when they got serious, their face changed completely and they suddenly didn’t seem as approachable as they had five minutes before. It was a signal that what they had to share was not a joke.
So as I always had with my father, I listened and I paid attention.
Kevin shared his story with me and I tried to imagine my friend and colleague, a respectable member of the community who grew up in a middle class suburb in New Jersey with two caring parents and had graduated from Syracuse University, being treated like a common criminal because his blackness made those police officers think he looked like someone who had robbed a store.
He told me that when he was younger his parents had taught him how to be if the police ever stopped him. It was a rite of passage in the black community. My heart broke as I listened and tried to imagine what that felt like even though I knew as a white woman I never could.
I didn’t want to believe in the truth of this. I wanted to believe there weren’t any bad cops out there and these things didn’t happen to good people like my friend. But I knew Kevin and I knew this what not the kind of thing he would make up.
That was in the late eighties. Since that day whenever I watch the news and hear the stories like I did this week of the deaths of innocent people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the six good cops in Dallas, I remember Kevin’s story and my heart aches all over again.
Almost three decades later and we’re still having this conversation. Some say it’s gotten worse. Others that it’s always been there. We just never had cameras in our pockets before to capture the horror on video.
I look at our country and I am astounded at the amount of hatred brewing. One needs only to look at a social media newsfeed to see the proof. I am the eternal optimist but I worry about what we are becoming as I never have before.
I am filled with anxiety every time I see Donald Trump take a stage and fill it with his bigotry, misogyny, bullying, name calling and finger pointing at every race and gender but his own and have to accept the awful truth that he indeed has supporters, people in our midst who think hatred and exclusion is okay, who stereotype and are unable to see that beyond our differences we are all still human beings and that makes us at our core the same.
I don’t know what the answer is but I know we have to find one and I know it has to start with real conversation that includes listening to what the other person is saying.
When Kevin first told me that story I didn’t just hear facts, I had a window to his experience. So maybe that’s part of the answer. Telling our stories. Sharing them. And listening with an open heart and an open mind so we understand.
I give an assignment every semester in my class at NYU in which my students who come from as far as China and India and Peru and as close as Brooklyn are asked to engage us in the story of their personal brand in three minutes.
What happens every semester after their presentations never ceases to amaze me. New friendships are formed. There is an openness in how they interact with each other. After listening to each other’s stories they find that in their differences they have much in common - not the least of which is their humanity.
I am not suggesting that the answer is as simple as giving a graduate class assignment. I just know we can’t sit and wait for our dysfunctional Congress to do something. They’re just adding to the problem of divisiveness.
But this is something each of us can experiment with - looking up from our smartphones and having a conversation with who is standing next to us. Instead of turning our noses up at our differences, we try embracing them and seeing what we can learn that can shift all this hate and anger to love and acceptance.
I did that yesterday with the woman checking me out at Whole Foods. I could have ignored her. She could have ignored me and just rang me up. She was young. I was older. She was black. I was white. She had an accent from some distant place. Mine was from Queens. But I started with a smile that was quickly reciprocated and we wound up in a conversation about the So Delicious dairy free coconut milk bars I was buying for the first time and the benefits of coconut milk. She added them to her personal shopping list and we promised to discuss what we thought the next time we saw each other.
It was just a moment. But it was a step toward the conversations we need to start having and the humanity we need to start expressing to each other.