It takes courage to raise your voice, to speak up and speak out about something. Especially if that something happens to be something you feel particularly strong about. In this age of social media, we either have some REALLY courageous people, or some REALLY strong feelings. Probably a combination of both. But when I take a look at some of the social media posts lately, I see so much anger, frustration, and just general nastiness. People are so easily outraged and quick to jump on the latest “I’m pissed off about….” bandwagon. Where is the compassion? Where is the desire to help our fellow man? Where is the desire to raise each other up with love and support? Why do we have to be so MAD that we march around in protest venting our anger wearing a hat or a t shirt or carrying a sign that spews venom and anger? Why do we default to negative energy? These are rhetorical questions of course, but it does make me wonder why people are soooo angry and quick to judge.
I work at a university, and so we work hard to promote inclusion, acceptance, and we celebrate diversity. We promote social justice. And we talk about personal biases, and white elephant topics like racism, white privilege, gender equality, my whiteness and your blackness – or nativeness – or sexual identity. In case you have never seen a picture of me before, let me just come clear and tell you a few things about me. I’m a woman. I’m ethnically white. I’m 46. I’m heterosexual and married to the same man for nearly 22 years now. I’m a Christian. I’m middle class, intelligent, but without a 4 year degree. I’ve served in the US Military. I’m a business owner. I drink alcohol. I have tattoos and piercings. My best friend on the planet is gay, pierced, tattooed, married, middle class. I have traveled internationally and been exposed to many cultures, races, ethnicity, religions, etc. I’ve witnessed discrimination, I’ve witnessed profiling – I’ve seen the ugly in people and I’ve seen the beautiful. I much prefer the beauty, in case you had any doubts.
Recently I traveled for business. Quick flights hopping from city to city, rental cars, people watching. People watching in airports is particularly interesting as you see people at their most tired and bedraggled times, as well as the professional travelers who seem to not even have a wrinkle in their trousers. Obviously you see all walks of life. The young, the old, the infirm, the health nuts, parents, children, young adults, and all variety of personal choices. You all shuffle through lines and down narrow aisles and try to not take up any more space than is absolutely necessary. You just want to get to where you are going, and hope that the airlines fairies have done their magic and you get an empty seat next to you! As I was settling into my seat for one of 4 flights, a young man came down the aisle and found his seat -next to me. He was late to board, and so the attendants were trying to get everyone into their seats quickly and get us on our way. He asked if he could be moved. Several times. He was ultimately told no. Several times. There were other open seats on the flight, but for “weight and balance” he needed to stay where he was assigned. I tried to be an unobtrusive as possible, knowing he didn’t want to sit next to me. And for the next hour or so I tried to make sense of his obvious discomfort. I did not speak to him, nor did attempt any pleasantries – he was clearly not happy with his seat assignment. I was confused, maybe a bit angry and frustrated. What was so offensive about sitting next to me? I decided to just spend some time in prayer – for our safe journey, for his peace of mind and personal comfort, and for me to have a clearer understanding of the situation, and to find compassion for this young man.
You see, he was a young black man, and I was a “middle aged white woman”. For whatever reason, I made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t get past his personal bias toward me. I was not like him, and he didn’t want anything to do with me. He leaned away from me, he ignored me as best he could, he put in ear phones and messed with his phone. His message was clear that he did not want to extend any common courtesy to me, and that he was just going to sulk in disgust as his bad luck of having his seat assigned next to me. When it became clear that he did NOT want to be there…one side of me got really defensive and OFFENDED. He took one look at me and made a hard fast decision about who I was based on my appearance and that he would rather be anywhere else? But wait, I’m the white person in this scenario, doesn’t society expect that I’m the one that should be frightened of this man based on his blackness? Should I be wondering if he has tattoos or some other sign of gang affiliation? Wait…I have tattoos…but he couldn’t see them. Did my pink coat give him some kind of signal? I don’t know…but I was kind of angry that I am supposed to be living in tolerance and treating “people of color” as if they are just the same as me – accepting of their differences in skin tone and treating them with respect and as if their lives matter. Ok…check…I was doing all that. I didn’t bother me at all that a young black man was sitting next to me. Nor did it bother me when the woman sat next me with a baby in her lap. Nor did it bother me when the older gentleman next to me asked me about the book I was reading, after I had noticed I had recently read the book he had open. I made small polite talk with each of my seat mates on each flight except the one with the young black man. He obviously had a problem with ME.
After a long few minutes in prayer, I found the compassion for that young man. I prayed that his heart would be open to tolerance and acceptance, I prayed for his success, and I prayed for healing of his perception. I also prayed for my own guidance and tolerance in interactions with people who might make me uncomfortable for whatever reason. I knew that I should not confront this young man or call him out for his rudeness. Sometimes speaking out is not the answer. At the end of the evening, I was sad that despite all the “stuff” we see daily in the media, that still, a young black man was so obviously uncomfortable sitting next to me on a short flight.
I will speak openly and publicly about things that I feel strongly about, but I will do it with respect. I won’t engage in open protests or debates – I prefer to avoid the confrontation and conflict. I will treat everyone with respect and with as much compassion as possible. What a wonderful world it would be if everyone did the same thing.