No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.
It started in 2012 when I met Leela at the iconic Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls. Leela (pictured right) is of Indian heritage but is ethnically ambiguous and is regularly mistaken for someone she is not.
Two things there is no confusion about: to the outside world, she is a woman and she is non-white.
Leela and I moved in together within months and are happily married after four years. My rude awakening began almost immediately. First, the skewed glances when we held hands on the street. Not only are we a mixed couple but there is an age difference between us, so I chalked it off to curiosity. I assumed New York City was as tolerant a place as you’ll get in America and that we would barely merit a passing glance.
How wrong I was.
Shortly after we met, Leela moved into my apartment in Battery Park City, an oasis in the bustling heart of the world’s money machine, a stone’s throw from the towering headquarters of Goldman Sachs. It’s a neighborhood where privilege abounds, where dogs have walkers, kids have nannies, homes have housekeepers, and buildings have attendants. It’s where supermarkets deliver at all hours, where main courses start at $30, where weekends involve loading the family SUV and
driving being driven to the Hamptons.
I chose that neighborhood years before it became what it is today. A long-time Upper West Sider, I moved to lower Manhattan shortly after the September 11th attacks for a number of reasons, not least of which was a sense of solidarity with the victims, several of whom were friends. I stayed because I thought living near a river was the only way my young daughter could get a taste of nature while still growing up in a polluted, over-crowded metropolis. (I’ve since moved near the park, for the same reason.)
Back to the present and my induction into a world seen through a darker prism. A day after Leela moved in, she came home visibly upset. I asked what happened. Apparently, the doorman had blocked her from entering the building, refusing to believe that the keys she was carrying were legitimately hers. She had to convince him to check the approved tenants list before he allowed her to go to her own home.
The incidents piled up. Things that may seem small to someone who doesn’t endure these experiences, but that in aggregate soured her daily life. The cabs that wouldn’t stop when she tried to hail them but hit the brakes and backed up when they saw she was with me. The clerks asking her to verify her ID every time she presented a credit card. The smiles at me from neighbors and barely concealed scowls at her when I turned away. The usual catcalls and crude comments when she walked alone. It quickly became clear that although we shared the same day to day life, her existence was profoundly different from mine.
The event that brought it to a head was when she pressed ‘PH’ in the elevator and the other occupant, a white male, asked which penthouse apartment she was going to clean. The idea that she lived there didn’t occur to him. When I heard about it, my indignation was palpable. It was the indignation and disrespect she lived with every day and that was alien to me.
Over the years we’ve been together, like all couples, Leela and I have shared our deep secrets, formative events that have left lifelong scars. We each have our stories. But nothing we spoke about prepared me for the steady accumulation of little emotional cuts, the insults of everyday life that keep her guard up at all times. This was something entirely new to me.
A progressive activist since college, I’d convinced myself that I was sensitive to the plight of others, enlightened about the hardships that humans face, self-aware enough to know that my experience was not necessarily that of the people around me. As a Lebanese-American who grew up a child of war and witnessed and survived death and destruction, I told myself that I got it. I knew to respect the perspective of other individuals, no matter how different that perspective was from mine.
What I didn’t realize was that we are stuck in our own heads far more than we can appreciate and that empathy has limitations. As a white male, I can convince myself that I understand racism and sexism, but it’s far more intellectual than visceral. My point of view is distorted by the culture I exist in.
These numbers from the Washington Post provide context:
In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race. The average black person’s friend network is eight percent white, but the average white person’s network is only one percent black. To put it another way: Blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends.
Until I married Leela and saw the world through her eyes, I was partially blind, believing I saw the harsh truths but only seeing them through a white-tinted lens. Living life as a woman of color is an automatic double strike against you. Leela and I move through the same physical space but our mental space is altered by the people around us, by the insidious prejudice (pre-judgment) surrounding us and shaping our reality.
I say all this as #BlackLivesMatter draws stark lines of demarcation between those who get it and those who don’t. I know I’ll never fully feel what Leela feels, but I can still rage against racism, fight inequality and injustice. I can still take a stand and make a difference, but I must do it with humility and acknowledgment of my own biases.
I’ll conclude by re-posting something I wrote after the Charleston massacre:
I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.
Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.
The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice shot down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…
Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.
No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.
We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name.
Yes, #BlackLivesMatter. So much is contained in those three words, so much more than many of us understand, however well-meaning we are. As I said: No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.
UPDATE (7/7/16): This was published a year ago and since then, many more lives have been snuffed out under similar circumstances. Most recently: Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. This brutality must end.