I was asked, along with a few coworkers, to attend a professional development conference called “Conflicts in a Diverse Classroom” led by world renowned diversity expert Lee Mun Wah. I was thrilled to have the chance to go, but even with my open mind and heart, I did not expect to feel the extent of emotion I did that day.
Early in the conference, we were asked to partner up with someone who we did not know and who did not look like us to have a real, raw conversation. Fate was on my side that day because I found my way to a man who would change me forever.
“Sometimes I just want a break from being a black man.”
These words--carefully chosen as had been his whole life--tumbled out of a man whom I had just met, and the magnitude of this statement shattered any last unknown sense of white privilege I had. The truth has a funny way of obliterating any false pretenses.
I looked straight into the eyes of a kind, successful, respectful human, and he told me that he wanted a break from being who he was. Never in my life had I even thought about needing a break from being a white woman. Sure, being a woman has its share of annoyances, but the pain and heaviness of his sentence was nothing I had ever felt or could claim to understand. There was nothing I could have said or done to take away the pain of this, so I listened--really listened--to his truth.
His truth made me want to break eye contact because it would have lessened the pain I felt when I looked in his eyes, and it would have removed some of the shame I felt in my heart, but I kept my gaze locked on him. I had the privilege of looking away, of walking away when this was all over, but he didn’t; this was his reality. At that moment, I saw why the issue of injustice has never been dismantled: The overwhelming feeling of shame that creeps up when talking about inequality of any kind causes many to turn away, and when we do that, we lose the connection of looking someone in the eyes and seeing and hearing his heart wrenching truth. When we look away, we can say, “I didn’t see that happen.”
I can tell everyone what did happen. I sat across from a man who was everything this country wants out its citizens. He worked hard, he was good to others, and he did the right thing, but instead of reaping the benefits, he lives a life full of fear. He’s afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing because he will be labeled as out of control or as an angry black man. He is afraid to tell his truth because so many people dismiss his reality as fiction. He’s afraid to dress in comfortable clothes because, to some, that makes him appear dangerous. Every single action he makes outside of his home is meticulously picked apart in his mind before he does it so that he does not fall into the stereotypes that have been shackled on so many for so long. It was a perspective that rocked me down to my core. He was one man, but his story is a narrative that is felt and lived by millions in our country.
I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to make sure that the feeling of this day never leaves my heart and mind and to fight for equality for anyone marginalized. I can see and name the problem. I can refuse to turn a blind eye to an obvious issue that affects people of all races, nationalities, religions, genders, and orientations. I feel like that is the biggest battle our country faces at the moment. We assume because isn’t not the 1960s, because Jim Crow laws are not acceptable ways to deal with opposite races, or that there is marriage equality that a problem no longer exists. Ask a person of color, a woman, a Muslim, a Mexican, a member of the LGBT+ community if there is injustice. Just be prepared to hear an honest and uncomfortable answer, and instead of trying to discredit the story, simply listen.
I sat across from my partner Gerian and heard his story. I listened to others who were brave enough to stand up in front of the room and tell their truth. I felt shame. I felt exposed. I felt connected. Every part of the day was unbearable. Every second forced us all to rethink the way we live and operate on a daily basis, and it asked that we see everything from a different lens.
“I just want a break from being a black man.”
That statement is forever seared into my brain. When anyone in our world feels like he needs a break from being who he is, we can’t minimize it. We can’t deny it. We can’t perpetuate it. When anyone in our world feels like he needs a break from who he is, we need to hear it and act. It’s everyone’s problem, even those who have the privilege to say it isn’t.
The truth is ugly, but it also is the only thing that will set us free.