Have you ever discovered you were standing in someone’s way and you didn’t even know it? Think of the crowded grocery store. My cart is parked right in front of the items you wish to view, but I am looking at the items across the aisle, intently. When I suddenly see you waiting to pass me, I say, “excuse me,” and move my cart. I wasn’t intentionally blocking you; I just hadn’t noticed you. It’s easy for me to correct the problem, because moving my cart doesn’t require a sacrifice, and I have no desire to own the grocery aisle. Blocking someone unintentionally in the grocery store causes a minor annoyance and is easily corrected. What can we do when we discover that we’ve been seriously standing in others’ way, preventing them from opportunity? Sharing my personal experience may not give others an answer, except perhaps to inspire reflection, but I must start somewhere.
In 1968, I was a ninth grade student attending West Junior High School (grades 7-9) in central Missouri. We had over 750 students in our school, and the hallways were noisy and crowded between classes. I served as a “hall patrol,” which meant that I, along with a number of other students, had been asked to stand on the stairway landings between classes, creating a human marker for students going up and down the stairs. Students went along the right-hand side of the hall and passed me on one side when going up and on the other side when going down. I had no other duty but simply to stand there, a marker to help bring order to the busy stairwell.
One day, a student I did not know shoved me aside as she descended the stairs, saying, “Get out of my way, you honkie bitch.” I was shocked and frightened. I didn’t know her, and I was only standing there, doing my job. Why was she so angry with me? At the moment it happened, I did not know how to act – I did not try to push back, nor did I try to stop her or talk with her. I did not know how I was supposed to respond, so I just kept standing there, frozen. In a vague way I felt as if I should apologize to her, even though she had pushed me. I figured if she was that angry, I must have done something wrong. I waited to talk about what had happened until I was at home. My mom said she was “jealous” of me – my mom’s standard explanation for anything unpleasant someone said or did to me. I don’t remember ever seeing that girl again, and I did not seek her out. My mother’s explanation didn’t really satisfy me, but after a while, I just stopped thinking about it. At the time, I did not understand all the ways I was standing in that girl’s way, and even today, I am only beginning to get a glimpse of the background to her rage.
Although I did not know it when I was in ninth grade, I was most definitely standing in the way of my African-American classmate, in a variety of contexts. As a junior high school student in 1968, I had no real appreciation for the ways that African-Americans were discriminated against, by cultural expectations and attitudes, and also by institutional regulation and practice. As I entered puberty, it became obvious to me that many African-Americans were angry. I saw riots on television where they expressed their rage with violence, theft, and fire. I was babysitting the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, and I remember feeling horrified while watching the reporting on television. I thought his message of equal opportunity and peaceful protest was important and right, and I was upset to think that his death would result in more violence. I knew that the Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act to end legal discrimination, and I did not understand why African-Americans were still angry. At thirteen, I believed that passing the law would fix the problem. I was clueless about how discrimination against African-Americans in the areas of education, employment, housing, and criminal justice impacted every aspect of their daily lives.
Beyond what I saw on television, I had little interaction with African-Americans, despite the fact that 20% of the student body at my school was black. I lived in a white world, knowing only about the black American experience from what I had gleaned from television, family, friends, and textbooks. I never wondered why there weren’t any black students in the advanced classes I took. I believed that the comfortable middle-class lifestyle I enjoyed, with a mom at home and a dad working as a college professor, were simply the result of my parents’ and their parents’ hard work. The message I received from history textbooks and white culture emphasized the hard work and sacrifice of the pioneers to face the challenges of civilizing a new world. My personal family history included settlers traveling in an ox cart from Vermont to the Northwest Territories, where they built a farm in what would eventually become Wisconsin. No one ever mentioned the fact that the land where they built the family farm had been stolen from the Menominee people. I knew that slavery was wrong, but it never occurred to me that the hard work of African-American slaves had made white wealth possible. My education at home and school had not included the whole story.
I feel sad when I think of this memory from ninth grade. I wish I had known the girl who pushed me; I wish I had been able to appreciate how both of our lives were greatly affected by cultural and institutional discrimination. I was most certainly standing in her way. She was blocked from opportunities that I took for granted. Even today, 50 years later, I can see that any children and grandchildren of my black classmate had to struggle with on-going discrimination, based solely on their ancestry. Once you look, you will see the devastating results of this pervasive racism everywhere in America.
The mainstream American narrative – that immigrants take risks and work hard, thereby giving their descendants every right to enjoy the fruits of their labor – has developed slightly in recent years to include more of the truth about the ways some immigrants stole from and oppressed others: those who were already living here, those who were brought here against their will and those who have come to seek opportunity but don’t look like the original European settlers. Recognizing and acknowledging the truth of white power and privilege in America, while an important first step, doesn’t make it disappear. Passing the Civil Rights Act didn’t end discrimination.
Awareness makes change possible but does not guarantee it. People who have acquired wealth and power are human, subject to greed and the innate desire to protect their own families and interests above all others. Humans rarely give up an advantageous position, even if they believe to do so would be just. While many white Americans recognize they have been standing in others’ way, we find it difficult to share our wealth, power and opportunity, especially in a culture that so highly values wealth and power. It will take continued, concerted effort to enact policies and cultivate behaviors that guarantee safety and create fair educational and economic opportunities for all Americans, regardless of their family origins or how much money they have.
On good days, I see a great awakening coming to the evolving human brain. For millennia, humans have relied on the divisions of family, tribe, party, religion and country for survival, believing that without division, all would be lost. When humans see that division is violence, perhaps we will create a different way of living on our planet. It is incumbent upon each of us to see our part in the ways we are blind to each other. Every day I seek to learn how to be in relationship to others that does not include violence. I seek to understand how our country can evolve so that we offer liberty and justice for all.