When I was a teacher in Philadelphia’s public school district, I remember feeling fairly intimidated. Being in the inner city, most of my students were black. And many of them, though less than half my age at the time, were half again my size. And a lot of them were sullen, insufferable smartasses.
I remember walking to and from school, sometimes seeing these kids on the street, and automatically feeling afraid, or nervous. This bothered me, because I don’t like to think of myself as racist or prejudiced in any way. I like to think of myself as more enlightened. And so, I thought about it.
I have a friend, Ted, whom I met when I lived in Taiwan. He’s a musician and a composer of rare skill. He speaks half a dozen languages, and is extremely well read, with a poet’s ear as well as a musician’s heart. He not only was the first person to really appreciate my music collection, understanding why I had what discs I did, but he furthered my musical education, introducing me to new conductors and helping me appreciate composers I had never thought much of previously.
At university, I had a friend, Otto, whom I met when I was in my religious phase. He was very kind, and wise, always ready to lend a sympathetic shoulder and ear to anyone who needed. He was studying ceramic engineering, and although he was working on computer components, electronics, and space shuttle tiles, he was still good-humored enough to laugh when liberal arts majors made fun of him for learning how to design aerodynamic flower pots.
That these men were black didn’t bother me. (I am not going to say I never noticed that they were black—that canard is as offensive as “Some of my best friends are black!”) But I began to think about why I was not bothered at all with my friends’ color as opposed to my students at school.
What I think the big difference is, is familiarity. Ted and Otto (…and Richard, and Andre, and Chris, and Glynnis, and George, and Mary, &tc….) were (are!) my friends. We spent time together, found common interests together, learned from one another; we knew one another.
The children and their families at my old school? I didn’t know them. Never spent time with them, or their families, never got to understand their situation, never tried to cross the socioeconomic divides between us—divides that did not generally exist between me and (most of) my friends. And their skin color became something for me to easily notice when I was busy feeling negatively toward them.
I think that is really the problem; unfamiliarity. My friends, I know. These pupils, I did not. I have spent time in my friends’ communities. I never spent time in my students’ community. And I think that probably translates into a lot of interactions between people. We don’t usually fear or hate people we know, with whom we have a real familiarity.
I noticed it with another relationship I once had, too. In Taiwan, I made the acquaintance of Mamdouh, a Jordanian. Despite our differences, we got on very well. He even used to invite me over to his flat for lunch. Mamdouh became a friend. But other Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs I’ve run into? I’ve had the same reactions as described above. I was taught to distrust and dislike Arabs, that they were all out to kill us, like Nazis. But when I got to know Mamdouh (and he got to know me), that animosity disappeared.
I am not going to suggest a big kumbaya movement to bring our various racial communities together; but I think that we do need to spend more time together, try to learn about one another, and cultivate empathy for one another. I think that would go a long way to bridging a lot of the divides between us.
It’s a bit of a trope that we fear the unknown, that we distrust what is unfamiliar to us. But if we can, rather than waste energy trying to overcome our fears, become familiar with each other, I think we could overcome the racial hatreds between our communities. Fear is an abstract concept. It’s a feeling, and a response that’s hard-wired into us as humans. It’s not something we can successfully fight. We need to remove our reasons to fear each other.
I think we would do much better if we make the effort to become friends. Or at least, familiar with each other. Much easier than to fight our own fears.
Well, that’s my two-kopeks’ worth, anyway.