a day in the park
Several years ago I would frequent a park during my lunch hour, reading or just sitting enjoying the view. One day as I sat and read a city work truck rumbled into the parking lot, 5 men poured out laughing and shoving each other. They sat in a tight circle not far from me, loudly enjoying each other, telling stories, sharing lives. Something about their obvious concern for each other, the way they listened intently as one talked was hard not to watch. Slowly I got up and began to walk toward them. I stood there for a few seconds, but it seemed longer to me, what was I doing attempting to engage them, they were not like me. Part of me was anxious that this foray would result in anger or maybe something worse. But I had to talk to them to ask them a question that I had been pondering. I stood outside their circle and asked if they would talk with me, I told them I had sincere questions I wanted to try and get answer for. You see I grew up in an affluent suburb where diversity was gauged by the brand of clothes you wore. There was no one in my life like these men. I had been taught that I was better than them, not overtly as if someone sat me down and laid it out. This education was slow and pervasive, based on cultural norms and morays. I believed that I was better for the first two decades of the my life, maybe even three. In the year prior to this day in the park I had been changing, seeing myself as others did, arrogant, self centered and racist. A racist trained by a system that created walls that kept people out yet also kept people in. My world had been dismantled over that year and this day was a breakthrough. So as I asked my question, one of the men quickly left. I asked the remaining 4 why their friend left and their answer came quickly and clearly, “he hated white people.” Their circle widened to allow me a place, I felt honored and anxious, but I was determined to talk with these men. “What is it like to be black in our city?’ my question drew silence and stares then at once they all began to speak, pain, fear, anger, dreams poured out. I was overwhelmed with their willingness to share what seemed to be very personal stories with a stranger, let alone a white man.The one thing that became clear was their lives where shaped and confined by a culture which had put barriers around them. One of the men told me that black men are stronger than white man because they endure a life a pain and unfilled dreams. it hit me, their lives were hard because of me. All those nights we had driven through the bad part of town yelling the “n” word, all those days sitting in my comfortable house oblivious to the condition of those around me. Those 5 men changed me that day. The one who had walked away may have already given up, exhausted by a system designed to limit him. Yet I left the park with a hope, a hope that maybe if I changed how I acted, how I spoke, how I used my privilege maybe the guy who walked away might start to change too. Maybe the pain that filled those men’s lives might be a little less if I gave up my place of privilege. since that day I have tried to be different, yet I still revert back to old ways of thinking at times. Old, ingrained views are hard to kill, maybe they can never be totally removed, yet with diligence and others to help the change can slowly become the norm. Talking to those men seemed crazy at the time but the result was transforming. Where are those people in your lives that could help transform you?