Principle No. 14: Understand the power of perspective. Remaining open to hear, understand and respect the perspective of others helps us to be more compassionate beings.
The unwarranted shootings of African-American men has become too much to stand. I am an African-American male whose 41 years of life have been consistently held in the crosshairs of racism in the American South and most recently in the Pacific Northwest. For months I’ve watched as African-American men have been slaughtered. My silence on issues related to race and my experiences with discrimination in America doesn’t help change things. It is shameful that it has taken technology to bring to light the experiences that we have talked about for years. It is that silence that may give some people the impression that these microagressions are not directed to educated and somewhat successful African-American males. There have been three experiences that I’ve had that have shaken the core of my American dream by reminding me of the cloud of “unbelonging” that hovers above me because of my race.
Close, but no cigar(ettes)
As a college student I worked briefly as a cashier at a convenience store in Statesboro, Georgia. One afternoon after reporting to work, the manager asked to speak with me in the back room. As I walked in the backroom of the store, I noticed that there was a small television screen and a video was paused. On the screen I could see my torso. She said, “I want you to watch this and tell me what you see.” As I watched the video from the previous night, I saw myself standing behind the register. There were no customers in the store. I remember it being a hot Georgia night. I pulled my shirt out of my sweat pants and leaned onto the counter. She paused the video and said, “What was that?” I said I was just pulling out my shirt and waiting for customers. She proceeded to accuse me of putting cigarettes down my pants and went on to talk to me about how many packs of cigarettes were missing. I was a non-smoker and none of my friends smoked so the absurdity of the claim blindsided me. I’d never been accused of stealing before. It struck me to my core to feel accused of stealing and to be presented with a videotape of myself. I never returned to the store because I felt that I had been violated and I knew that I couldn’t stand to continue to work in a setting knowing that I was in the crosshairs.
That’s Why We Call You…
In the summer of 1995 I decided to rent a room from a friend of mine who was also a History major. His name was Stone and he was a young White kid from the suburbs of Atlanta who for the most part seemed well read, attuned to African-American culture and an all-around good guy. We debated about Hip-Hop and talked about issues of race. The O.J. Simpson trial was all over the headlines, yet my life on a college campus seemed somewhat removed from the tensions I was seeing on the evening news. At the end of the summer I found myself trying to save enough money to pay for my upcoming classes and my final installment of rent to Stone before returning to the dorm. One day in the cafeteria he approached me and asked me when I would be able to make the final payment of rent. I told him that I would need about 2 weeks to get the money. He became visibly angry. In the midst of a full cafeteria he leaned into me and said very clearly, “That’s why we call you niggers!” My friend had reached in the past to assault me with the most demeaning racial slur and the pain it inflicted cut deeper because of the connection between us as classmates, Hip-Hop fans, and this expectation that our interaction would be better than that of our parents. In the seconds that followed I was filled with a rage that could have ended my college experience. I’d been insulted, betrayed, and called the term that was used for centuries to demean people of color. It cut deep and once again placed upon my college experience the shadow of the crosshairs.
No Place Like Home
In 2003 I traveled to London with two professors to attend an international conference on education. It would be my first trip outside of the United States. While in London, I was struck by the diversity of the city and the pockets of distinct culture there. I explored the pubs, barbershops and record stores and tried to immerse myself into the culture of the city. It felt good to be enjoying a summer outside of the crosshairs. During our stay there we visited a family that lived a few train stops outside of London. We had dinner with the family, relaxed in their backyard and talked about the differences between life in America and life in England. After saying our goodbyes we walked a few blocks to the train station and a police officer was standing in the doorway. The two professors, both White, walked on into the train station alongside me. However, the police officer asked me to stop and to produce identification. The professors continued walking, not realizing that I’d been stopped ‘randomly’ and asked to produce identification.
At that moment I was faced with the attributional ambiguity that makes one wonder whether the stop was random or based on my race. Why weren’t we all stopped? Was it a random check or was it the aiming of the crosshairs in a London train station? Had my experiences in American created a hypersensitivity to discrimination or were my senses highly attuned? Whether in Georgia, Washington or London one feels the weight of the crosshairs and the burden of trying to convince others that it actually exists.
At this point in my career, I am experiencing the greatest level of professional success I have ever seen. I’m making a difference in the lives of children and helping to shape the practice of teachers so that they can create better outcomes for children. Yet, I am more aware that as a leader I must persistently resist the existence of these crosshairs that are upon me. They will never go away, but I’ve become more skilled at resisting them through my professional and personal pursuits in education and writing. The crosshairs are present every second of the day. This pervasive sense of unbelonging in the very place ones calls home is something I would like for others to understand. The literal crosshairs aimed at African-American men by police are a violent literal manifestation of a phenomenon that occurs on a micro-level in the lives of scholars, attorneys, and writers who outwardly seem to be far removed from the sting of oppression. Perhaps with understanding of what it feels like to live in the crosshairs, people can understand the sense of frustration, rage and helplessness African-American men feel as they try to lead in their communities.
Soundscape: Move on Up by Curtis Mayfield