A middle-aged white woman told me this story over tea and crumpets. I’m just kidding, it was just coffee.
Her story telling at first masked the underlying weight of her words. Her inflection was that of light amusement. But the implications of her reaction and theirs were the results of this country’s history of racial oppression and stereotypes.
The woman, let’s call her Jill, was visiting New York City for the first time in a few years. Her experience of living in the city earlier in her life left her with a fundamental impression of its personality, but the outward façade of restaurants and shops had dramatically changed. A slight drizzle accompanied her journey from 65th street to 49th street. Carrying a purse, and a rather nice umbrella for New York, she approached four young black men working the passing crowd.
They were obviously intent on peddling their wares and greeted Jill with enthusiasm. One man asked if she would like a CD and she stopped in her purposeful New York-style walk to converse with him.
The man’s teeth flashed as he smiled at her in the rain.
“Why, you’re not afraid of me!” he said.
“Of course not,” Jill replied. “I have a teenager!”
“Then shake my hand!”
So she shook his hand. And the man signed the CD for her. It was entitled “God. Family. Business.” by Black Fam Music Group. The laminated casing of the CD didn’t foretell the worth of the work within. She took the CD with a grin.
“Now, give me a hug!” he said.
Jill told me the hug was one of the must warm hugs she’d ever received on a New York street.
“Now, can you help a brother out?” was his last line. Jill laughed, knowing that was his first purpose, so she pulled out $5 to give him and she left.
As she told me this story she interspersed the plot line with intonations of the importance of what the men’s initial impression of her was and vice versa. To Jill, the men must have assumed that a middle-aged white woman alone on the streets of New York would be afraid of some “big black men.” When Jill surprised them with her warm reciprocation of their greeting they wanted to seal that impression with the civility of a handshake and a hug.
But the reality that this encounter exposes is one of an America where racism and racial stereotypes are far from gone from the forefront of people’s minds. Trayvon Martin’s sad story is the most prominent example of racial profiling that comes to mind.
But his isn’t the only story. Racial fear, bigotry, and anger hasn’t left the daily environment of the streets of New York, or the rest of the country.
When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” she exposed a nation to the wrongs of a abhorrent institution. As Malcom X grew older he morphed his ideas and changed stereotypes. When Rose Parks refused to stand up for a white person, she embraced the rights of an older woman on public transportation—white or black. When Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his doctrine of peaceful dissent and fighting hate with love, he fought racial prejudice. When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, he defied preconceived ideas of who he was.
Until we can walk from 65th to 49th without racial profiles crossing the minds of those we pass can we ease the fight for equality. We are closer than we were 25, 50, and 100 years ago. But we are not done.
Each of us has an obligation to be the exception to the stereotype that enfolds us. Each of us the obligation to look to our left and embrace the brother or sister who looks different from us. But we also have the obligation to look to our right and see the person we mistrust, dislike, or hold in prejudice. When we see that person we must open our fist and shake their hand.