Increasing cultural awareness, one seed at a time...

In a recent workshop on implicit bias for health care professionals, a black male participant in his 20s told a poignant story about a recent experience. Shortly after the September 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC, this young man walked into a lunch café in a nearby town with an older white female colleague. Upon seeing a long table with 10-12 white city police officers and sheriff's deputies dining, he feltuncomfortable, and asked his friend if they could leave and eat somewhere else. When his companion asked him what was wrong, he gestured to the table of law enforcement personnel and told her that he didn’t feel comfortable eating at the restaurant. Unfortunately, she did not seem to understand his concern, said something to the effect of, "Oh, don't be silly--this is a great place!" and insisted that they eat since they were already there. 

Days later, the man said that he found himself still very upset by his colleague's reaction. He could not believe how uncaring and insensitive she had been, especially in light of the racially charged demonstrations that had just taken place just a half-hour down the road and were all over the national news, so he decided to speak with her about it. When he brought it up, his colleague was willing to listen as he explaied what made him uncomfortable. He was rather surprised to learn that she actually had no clue at all what he was referring to, or why he would feel unsafe in the presence of a throng of armed white officers. For her, the Scott shooting had not really registered as a personally significant event; it was something that had happened to other people (and over in the big city, to boot), so what could it matter for her or those she knew and worked with. More importantly, it had not crossed her mind that her black colleague, whom she knew in a purely professional context and considered to be a "law abiding citizen," might have anything at all to fear from police. 

The man indicated that, in a way, it was a bit of a relief to realize that his friend had not been callously disregarding that he might have feelings of fear. Not being black herself, and not having shared his background and experiences with law enforcement, she had not thought about what feelings the shooting might evoke in other persons of color. Her problem was not that she was an outright white supremacist, or a "blue lives matter" sympathizer, but one of unawareness (or perhaps obliviousness). This encounter gave him an opportunity to share a bit more of his experience as a black man in the South, and after listening to him, his colleague acknowledged that she probably had a good bit to learn about what that must be like, and the kinds of concerns that he and other black colleagues have to carry around on a daily basis.

By having the courage to speak of his fear, and to bring up his questions about her level of awareness and consideration of how he might feel, this gentleman both honored his own feelings and experience (rather than just trying to stuff the hurt away or "blow it off"), and he gave his colleague a chance to learn and grow as well. As another participant phrased it in a follow up comment, the conversation may well have "planted a seed" for his colleague as a reference point for future experiences she may observe or learn about. There was some reason to hope that she might now be at least a little less unaware the next time she was in a similar situation. 

We love that story, for so many reasons. It's literally thrilling when a participant tells a better and more authentic, relevant, inspiring story than we ever could, and on such an important topic. Plus, we loved and were enriched by getting to hear it, ourselves, on a personal level, as was everyone else in the room. And we are grateful when anyone we encounter is brave enough to speak to a wrong or an injustice--or even a smaller slight or offense--yet kind enough to do so in a way that dignifies the offender and offers him or her a chance to grow and change, rather than heaping shame, guilt, and condemnation (which don't tend to be the best fuel for the engines of lasting change). 

Here's to the planting of more seeds of potential change, in the seminar room, and after.