When I was in 7th grade, my classmate’s father died of cancer. He took some time away from school, and during that time, my mother encouraged me to express my condolences to him when he got back. Being naive and stubborn, I resisted. “I’ll be reminding him of the fact his dad died, and just make him feel worse,” I argued. My mother responded that I didn’t understand, and that people appreciate these gestures, however simple, when they experience loss. And besides, she told me, it was my duty to acknowledge it. To pretend that nothing had happened would be much worse.
My friend eventually came back to school. In the days following, he tended to sit near the back of the classroom. He was more subdued and quiet than before, and rarely talked in class. I never expressed my condolences, or even acknowledged that he’d lost his dad. It’s hard to remember why, but I think I was scared of how he’d feel and how he’d receive the gesture. Maybe I was scared I’d say the wrong thing, say something stupid.
I was reminded of this episode a couple years ago after a string of highly-publicized instances of violence against black people in America. It had been a depressing series of events, culminating with Eric Garner’s now famous “I can’t breathe” chokehold-induced heart attack at the hands of the NYPD. The nation, it seemed, had reached a racial boiling point, a fragile equilibrium where smoldering suspicion and anger could explode in unpredictable directions.
In many ways, these events felt to me like a friend’s relative had died. I myself was saddened and afraid; how much worse must the feeling be, I wondered, for my black friends and colleagues experiencing these spectacles in a much more personal way? I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did as a kid, to continue on and ignore it, to pretend that nothing had changed. Somehow, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious. I wanted to express my condolences.
One day at work, I mustered up the courage to broach the subject with a black coworker. He was (is) a close friend. I knew he’d understand where I was coming from, even if I ended up saying something dumb. So I told him how depressed these news stories made me, and that I could only imagine how they made him feel. We chatted for a few minutes about what had happened. We talked about the ways America had changed, and the ways it hadn’t. We talked about our families, about our kids and the world they were growing into. It was, for all intents and purposes, a normal conversation.
Afterwards, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Now, consider the difficulty it took me, a brownish-skinned Middle Eastern person, to broach this subject with a black coworker whom I was already close with. How much more difficult must it be for white people in general to bring up the topic of race, especially when oftentimes the only black people they know are distant acquaintances rather than close friends?
Surely, racism in America can’t be defeated with casual 15-minute office conversations. The big stuff matters. To take but one example, the Justice Department’s recent investigation into Ferguson, MO shed light not just on inequalities in the criminal justice system, but also on the ruthless nickel-and-diming of that city’s mostly black residents. It raised in the minds of millions of Americans the possibility that other poor and underprivileged communities around the country might also be being used as their cities and states’ fiscal piggy banks, and put pressure on other city governments to correct these abuses. Thanks to the DoJ’s findings, almost overnight this issue became part of the broad public discourse. The point is, these things are important.
With that said, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can legislate and executive order away America’s centuries-old racist disease. To believe that we can somehow solve this problem — to cure the disease rather than the symptoms — without white and black people actually becoming friends and listening to one another is hopelessly naive.
One more story for illustration. Back when I was a college student in a small town outside of Boston, I happened to be chatting with a group of Baha’i friends after services. One of those friends, a Nigerian guy who was then a graduate student at MIT, at one point matter-of-factly mentioned that he got pulled over about once a month by the police without ever getting cited for a violation. I can’t remember the broader topic of discussion, but I vividly remember this anecdote, and I remember the way he seemed to both chuckle and shake his head as he said it, as if recognizing simultaneously the ridiculousness and the sadness of the whole thing.
Of course by that age I had some idea that many black people faced these types of regular hassles. But I don’t think it became reality for me until someone I knew, someone I was friends with, said it out loud. Needless to say, the notion of institutional prejudice in America — in law enforcement, in the criminal justice system, in finance, or wherever — is much harder to dismiss as fantasy or exaggeration when one’s own friend is the one testifying to its truth, rather than a distant talking head on TV or a faceless author of an article coming across one’s Facebook feed.
Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning”. I’d venture to say that it is more than just our church pews that are in sore need of integration, but our living rooms, dining tables, and backyard patios. It has become far too easy for us to retreat into our racially- or ideologically-pure social enclaves, content never to speak with and listen to those who are different from ourselves.
This isn’t about absolving anyone of guilt, or about making anyone feel better about themselves. That is not the end goal of any meaningful conversation about race. This is about the fact that it is much easier to maintain prejudice and apathy within one’s heart when one has little or no connection to other human beings, and especially to those who are different. Maybe it is time for us to actually start seeking out these connections, to forcibly agitate our own lives and painfully break down the artificial and arbitrary social barriers that divide us.
Once again, this is not about a replacement for the institutional efforts mentioned above. It is an acknowledgment that materially changing the racial dynamics of America requires a change in the hearts of actual people — not only politicians, judges, and policeman but shopkeepers, loan officers, school teachers, and everyone in between — and not just the laws on the books.
If you’re troubled by America’s racial realities, you’re not alone. But eradicating racism and all its structures can’t be accomplished by fiat. At some point it will require, in Shoghi Effendi’s words, “deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort” on our parts. Sequestering oneself within one’s circle of friends and bouncing news articles among each other doesn’t count. It’s time to invite some new people over for dinner. Or coffee, or a jog, or an office break, or a church picnic, or a Passover seder, or whatever else. Don’t judge; just hang out and be friends. Even better if they look different than you, and better yet if their views on the world differ from yours. Hopefully, at least to some small extent, everyone involved can learn something, and we all can start to change. If that sounds naive, just ask yourself: What, exactly, is the alternative?