Consider this: How many times a day do you pass other people and act as if they are invisible?
Never, you say. Really? How about that homeless man, sitting silently on the street, perhaps shaking a cup? Or the tough-looking kid, baggy pants hanging, hair in dreads? Or that stranger standing close beside you in the crowded, but silent elevator.
I’ll bet it’s more common than you — than we — care to admit. We live in a society compartmentalized by difference, by indifference, and — admit it or not — by fear of other, whatever other might be.
I spent last week in San Francisco at a conference called NCORE, an acronym for a mouthful (National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education). Some sessions, one on a new approach to mentoring colleagues, for example, were useful in my job. Others were just useful reminders about life, and how we sometimes live it halfway.
My favorite session was titled “Let’s Get Real About Racism.” It was run by filmmaker, author and diversity trainer Lee Mun Wah, a man all the more remarkable in his commitment to breaking down racial barriers given the story he told us. His mother was shot in the head and killed by a young man of a different race 20 years ago.
The session was packed, all of us sitting in something resembling concentric circles, facing one another. Our trainer asked us a few questions. Why, he wondered, don’t we look each other in the eye when we talk? Why don’t we listen attentively? (We, in this case meaning any two people, not merely people of different races.) And then we played a sort of mass musical chairs.
Our assignment: to find a partner, a total stranger with whom we were about to share some pretty intimate things about our own life in five minutes, followed by two more in which our partner was encouraged to draw us out (“tell me more about …”).
I’m oversimplifying, of course, but that was about it. We were supposed to address three questions: How did we see ourselves? How did we think other people see us? How would we like to be seen?
My partner was a dad, a college diversity counselor, about 40, black. It would be a violation of trust to say too much more. But in about 15 minutes, I felt as though I’d met a guy, of a different generation and a different race, whom I’d love to get to know better. We were both the sons of immigrants, my dad German, his Haitian. For different reasons, we’d both faced a certain isolation in high school, made adjustments, moved on.
Nothing remarkable, mind you. In some ways, it’s the American story. But whether we admit it or not, our history books and narratives too often make it the white American story. Power and efforts to maintain it sew division. Lack of exposure to those of different cultures and races sadly too often breeds further separation born of discomfort and ignorance.
At 62, I consider myself lucky. Today I’ve got friends from many racial, ethnic, geographic, generational and sexual preference backgrounds. But it took me probably half my life to get serious about breaking down the walls a childhood in a largely white suburban community built around me.
I’m still learning, and learning is not a bad thing. But the kinds of artificial separation engendered by lack of exposure are bad. Daily life is a heck of a lot more interesting when we meet and spend time with people different from ourselves. And in the end we learn that difference is only skin deep anyway.
Humanity is about tearing down fences, not building them higher.