This is the day we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here in the United States, so it seems an appropriate time for me to get back to my racism series.
I taught at a new high school in Year Five of my 23-year high school teaching career. This school was a consolidation of two local high schools, and the racial percentages were about the same as my previous school.
This new school was approximately 90 percent white and 10 percent black.
The students who taught me my big lesson on race were four or five young black men who were in one of my college prep junior classes a few years into my time at this new school.
They were very likable young men who kept me entertained. One time when I had to go to the school office before class started, I came back to find the outline of a body drawn in chalk on the carpet in my classroom. And a piece of masking tape colored red, placed where the heart was. These young men were the “culprits.” They gave me a good laugh this time and many other times.
They were clever young men – lively, engaged, smart.
My lesson came in a typical class discussion.
But this time it was the teacher who learned the most.
I don’t remember what literary piece we were discussing. Perhaps it had to do with race. But what happened was something that changed my perspective.
In this discussion, one of the young black men commented, “Whenever we go into a store, they follow us around.”
I knew he meant that the store employees followed them to be sure they didn’t steal anything.
My reply was, “Oh, I’m sure they don’t. You just think that they do. I’m sure they really don’t follow you around.”
Then all of the young black men in this class jumped into the discussion.
“Ms. Seckinger, yes they do!! They follow us around!!”
“They really do!”
They were adamant.
And I heard them. I was stunned.
That was their reality.
I was at first dismissive of their experience, tried to tell them they were imagining it . . . because it was not my experience.
I was a 30-something white woman who had never been followed around in a store by an employee.
But they were young black men. And their experiences were very different.
That was a big awakening for me.
Just because something wasn’t my experience doesn’t mean that it’s not someone else’s.
Just because I – as a white woman – haven’t experienced something, that doesn’t mean my black friends haven’t.
There is such a thing as white privilege. I don’t know if that was a term back then, but those young men made me very aware of it that day.
Bu we white people often aren’t aware of our privileges – because it’s our normal to be treated with respect, to be trusted – simply because we are white.
Our black friends have a very different normal.
I learned a very important lesson those 25 or more years ago. After opening my mind to hearing their stories, I believed these young men when they told me that their experiences were so different from mine.
And in this time period right now, many black people still have many of the same types of experiences. But now they can take out their cell phones and record a video to show us unbelievers what their world is like.
How many videos have I watched lately of black people being harassed and having the police called on them when they were just going about their business?
Those young men all those years ago played a very big role in waking me up to their reality – to the reality of what it might be like to live in this world as a black man or woman, boy or girl.
They made me realize how dismissive I was toward experiences that were not mine.
I changed at that very moment.
Because I saw how wrong I was.
I owe them much gratitude for being willing to share their experiences.
And for being adamant (and caring) enough to help their privileged white teacher change her point of view.
If you’re interested in the earlier posts in my series about my own racism, scroll down on my home page to see the previous ones.