Updated: Jun 27, 2020
I had invited him over for coffee the other day as he has completed several epic bike rides including riding around Lake Michigan. A friend and I are planning to undertake the same 1,100 mile ride this summer, and we wanted to listen to his suggestions on what gear to pack, what route (clockwise with the wind) to follow, lodging ideas and more... She and I are really novices at long distance riding, but willing to give it a go!
He shared his riding stories, and we picked his brain. As the information stream slowed, I asked him how he was doing.... He knew exactly what I meant and answered with a flat expression, “I’m not doing very well.” I’ve known this man and his wife for over 20 years. We were in a business group together when I owned my construction company and he an IT consulting business. RARELY have I ever seen him without a smile and sharing a creative idea.
So his reply, though not unexpected, got my attention as this gentle black man was hurting. We listened as he began. He talked about the anger he felt while watching the horrific murder of George Floyd as it aired across the national platforms. He said he felt like he wanted to break something, and yet he didn’t know why. And then he realized - he was angry with himself. You see, he felt that his participation and successes in society made him complicit in the systemic racist systems that are in place. He felt he hadn’t done anything to change the societal structures that kept his “race” in check.
He went on talk about his mom and how she frankly told her children that:
Life is unfair. Deal with it.
You will need to work twice as hard to get half as much as your white friends.
My friend accepted these “truths”, and he and his siblings navigated the additional complexities and burdens of growing up black, and they created successful middle class lives for themselves and their families. He shared that his friends that received the same message from their parents navigated well and created middle class lives for themselves too. Those that didn’t hear those messages and attempted to fight the injustices they felt were either dead or imprisoned.
He went on to talk about his first day in High School. Now my friend is really smart which will become even more apparent... He received his class list on that first day as a freshman (isn’t that 14 years old??) and found he had been placed in basic math, remedial English, etc. He had completed algebra 1 and 2 in 8th grade and was a top student in his class. That 14 year old went to his guidance counselor and asked why he had been placed in these classes and if his transcripts had been reviewed. The answer he received was the the counselor placed him in classes that he felt my friend would be successful in............
He never sought help from that, or any other guidance counselor again.
That smart young kid left the office and went to the cafeteria where he found his fellow students and asked what time/day they were going to Algebra 3, Advanced English, etc. This spunky kid recreated his class schedule and showed up to those classes. He raised his hand and had his name added to the attendance record. He raised his hand and had his test results added to the 6 week grade list. At the end of the second 6 weeks, his math teacher asked, “You weren’t supposed to be in this class were you?” His academic success was noted and he was officially added to the class rosters.
When I shared this story with another bright white friend of mine (#1 in his class at Princeton) he replied that he would have accepted the class list he was given. He said he never would have thought that the system was doing anything other than looking out for him...
My friend then shared yet another unbelievable story from his freshman year at Rose Hulman Institue of Technology. Now for those of you unfamiliar with this school, it is a private, elite, academically rigorous college to enter and navigate. He went on to share that the only C he received in college was from his freshman year chemistry class and with an average score of 89. He was sitting around lunch one day after grades came out commiserating with his buddies on the tough grading curve. One of his white friends said that he had received a B+ with a score of 88. That spunky, smart young man then walked into his professor’s office and said there must be some kind of mistake as he received a C with an average score of 89. The professor told him, “I don’t believe you did the work. The grade stands.” Stunned and yet undeterred, my friend went to the Dean who told him that the professor had the right to assign any grade he deemed appropriate. The Chemistry Professor went on to become the Dean of the Chemistry Department. My friend made his first donation to Rose Hulman once this not so veiled racist retired.
At this point I am feeling his pain and frustration and fighting off tears. My friend is a slight man with a strong athletic build and an articulate tongue. He went on to tell us that he will no longer drive in Carmel, IN because of the uncountable number of times he has been pulled over, frisked and searched and the continued high risk of being pulled over, frisked, searched and worse. He is a 58 year old man. My peer. In 2020.
I get push back from some people that don’t believe we have a system of racism in this country, and though many codified laws have been changed (which is progress), the attitudes and underlying current of racism are veiled and deep. My bike riding cohort asked him if it is better today than those college days, and his answer was painful. He said that it’s better to deal with an overt racist than a subtle racist in a suit. He often had to have his white partner deal with white clients as he found he was not welcome...
I am ashamed that it has taken me over 20 years to hear these stories from a friend.... I asked if I could share, and he said yes, but added that he didn’t believe his story was unique as every black person has these stories. I disagree. He is my friend and his story is unique to me - and now to you.
I feel a sense of urgency. It’s our time. It’s time for me and my white friends to rise up and change parts of our Country that were created long ago, but still persist. To be part of the change for good. To live our Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, new age values that tell us what is happening around us is wrong. Can we help to bring about the necessary corrections to our society which will allow all people to live their lives with the same freedoms, safety and opportunities that we white peoples have?
Can we help to better our workplace? Dare to talk to those that don’t understand? Expect more from ourselves...? Can I?
Oh yes, and please vote.