You witnessed a spontaneous social experiment the other night, one that highlights a barrier we must overcome in order to unify this nation, if not the world.
While walking four blocks in a relatively nice Chicago neighborhood, you and your party passed a little storefront crammed with about fifty black young adults, several spilling out onto the sidewalk, most of them focused on some event in the store. Your first and only thought was, “Gee, I wonder what’s going on here?” Then you flashed them a smile and moved on. The two little girls in your party kept chatting. Your 6’1” son observed that the young people were watching a football playoff game on TV.
Meanwhile, the man in your party flared like a King Cobra. This actually happened: you watched in amazement as he broadened his shoulders, jutted out his chin, opened his elbows, and sauntered past the shop, eyes forward. Bigger than your son to begin with, he made sure the gathering knew he would flatten anyone who tried to interact with your group. You chalked it up to a man thing.
On the way back after supper, your party passed the same gathering, which had now half dispersed, and your male friend flared all over again, adding a constant head-swivel as you all crossed to the next block. You couldn’t help yourself, you chuckled and pointed it out.
“You’re a scanner.”
He looked at you, startled, surprised that anyone would notice his protector mode. He excused himself by reminding you he’d grown up in an inner city neighborhood, one so tough he was chased to school every day of his boyhood. Fair enough, and because many men have a tendency to scan their surroundings, your friend had two reasons for reacting as he did: nature and conditioning. You wonder, however, whether there was something more to his reaction . . . an element of fear attributable to more than just a gathering of youths in an inner city shop.
An element having to do with the color of their skin.
This is not to say your friend behaved like a racist, but through body language he did convey a fear or at least an expectation that those people might harm you. And indeed they noticed, because he reported afterward that they made some remark … not to you but to him, the last person to walk by, the only member of your group to project anxiety. Regardless of his motives, your friend transmitted a presumption of wariness to these people, which they quickly decoded and returned with a light taunt. Programmed to expect prejudicial treatment from whites, they must have perceived his reaction as racist—in other words they too regarded him with presumption.
Meanwhile, you, an average sized woman, have almost never felt fear in a similar setting. Call it a fifty-year-long, one-person study. Are you naïve? Lucky? Or have you hit upon the core of how we humans might finally sort this stuff out? You prefer to think the latter. You believe if we all walked through the world looking everyone else in the eye, smiling, nodding, and staying relaxed we would immediately erase one root cause of hatred. Sure, there’s a time and a place for employing caution. Sure, bad people come in all sizes and colors. But at the center of it all lies a truth to consider: Everything, everything depends on how humans value each other.
The adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” carries more weight than the wisdom of mere kindness or care. It means letting go of prejudice and presumption. It means granting others a measure of trust. It means that a group of young people, no matter their numbers or color of skin, does not necessarily signify a prospect of danger. Maybe all they are doing is watching an NFL game on TV.
Everyone’s presence impacts those around us. That’s why it’s best to smile, as they say, so the world will smile with you. Perhaps you’re naïve, or perhaps you’ve been lucky, but until proven otherwise you believe this approach with all of your heart.
To read more letters from Colleen, click here!