IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME! I’m 6’5”, in my late 40’s, African-American living in Minneapolis Minnesota…so was George Floyd. From the cashier to the officers, all they saw was that he was someone who because of his appearance presented a threat. It's what led to the 911 call...it's what led them to feel like they needed to handle him with force...force that resulted in his death. It didn't have to happen that way, but it did and all based on perception.
First impressions are unavoidable. Within the first 10 seconds of seeing someone, people make a judgement about each other. When I think about the George Floyd situation, to think that someone made a judgement and took action based on his appearance is unsettling. The painful realization for me is that no matter what I have accomplished in life, all it takes is for one person to feel threatened or intimidated and make a snap judgement or decision that could ultimately lead to my death as in the case of George Floyd (yes I’ll keep saying his name). No consideration for my college degree, 25 years in vocational ministry, building and leading multi-cultural ministries from the deep south to the upper Midwest ranging in size from 50 to over 5,000, mentoring hundreds of students, athletes, pastors, leaders etc. around the world, just some scary big black man who might mean some harm. What am I supposed to do with that?
The reality of having someone assume things about me is nothing new. I have lived with it all my life and to be honest, regardless of circumstances, everyone has been misjudged. But I won’t speak for everyone, I can simply speak as a black man in this country who has spent the majority of his life dealing with people who make assumptions about me just because of the color of my skin. The best way to explain this is to share one of my childhood experiences.
I have always lived between two cultures and have developed an understanding of both. As far back as the first grade, I remember being one of only a handful of African-American students in my class. Whenever something went wrong in my class, there was generally one person that got the blame and it was me. The white students would say I did it and the black students would not say anything to defend me. I was constantly being pulled by my ear by my first-grade teacher into the back of the room and being scolded for things that I did not do. What was I to do? I was out there on my own, “too black” for one side and “too white” for another. The sad part is that this would play itself out in various forms throughout my life.
Frankly, it is enough to make one angry and enough to make some give up, but that is not who I am. I have seen and been victim to many injustices that should have taken me out but because of how my parents raised me and my faith, I have learned that instead of being crippled by my experiences that I must use them as fuel to overcome. Instead of complaining about the injustices, I must do something about it. If there is going to be change, it starts with me!
It’s Up To Me!
“If it is to be, it’s up to me” the infamous William Johnsen quote that is probably hanging in many locker rooms across the world. The quote is exactly what it says, if something is going to happen then it is up to me to make it happen. Waiting to see if someone else is going to step up is no longer an option. It is that kind of thinking that has allowed this sinful behavior to continue for so long. Many around the world are enraged by what they saw transpire in the video of the murder of George Floyd. It has brought to light for many the depths to which the sin of racism has permeated every level of our world. As Will Smith put it “Racism isn’t getting worse, It’s getting filmed”
The desire to overcome racism wasn’t at the forefront of my world view growing up, it was a side effect of the situations that I found myself in. When you are the only or one of a few that look like you in a group, you have to work to overcome people’s perception of you. I never focused too much on people’s reasons for not befriending me. I simply learned that the only way I was going to overcome people’s perceptions of me is to be the initiator. I needed to be the kind of friend that I wanted to have. What that took is just being myself and being willing to step into their world. As I got older, it was obvious that most people weren’t going to make the effort to step into my world. I had to bring my world to them.
In the last article I talked about my next door neighbor Tom. He was older than me and probably had no reason or need to hang out with the “little black kid” next door. Tom was a great basketball player and he and the other kids in the neighborhood liked to play basketball in his driveway. One day I decided to wander over and see what he was up to and he invited me to play. All the kids were better than me because though I had a basketball family, I really didn’t have an interest in playing until I moved into that neighborhood. He and the other kids welcomed me in and that was the start of my love for the game and my realization that the game would give me a voice with people who otherwise might not have given me a chance.
There is something about sports that transcends other issues of the day. Among athletes there is a level of respect that comes with competing with someone. The better the competition, the higher the respect level. I noticed that when I showed that I could play the game, people were more willing to talk to me. Once the door was opened, I had to just be myself. That language of sports and competition could speak more than anything I could say. Of course, there needed to be something of substance behind the game. There needs to be a genuine acceptance of people as they are. That was a lesson that I learned in that same neighborhood.
Mike was another one of the neighborhood kids who loved to play basketball. The trajectory of our friendship was actually determined years before we met by our dads. When we first moved on the block, dad and I were in the yard when a tall white man came walking down the alleyway to introduce himself. He and my dad recognized each other pretty quickly and had a reunion of sorts. They knew each other from growing up going to school and playing basketball. My dad explained to me later that not only did he respect Mike Sr. as a fellow athlete, but he also respected him for something else that he did.
One day when they were kids my dad had happened across a situation where some bullies were harassing a black girl. Mike Sr. happened upon the scene right before my dad showed up and stood up for the girl. The bullies didn’t take to kindly to Mike’s stepping in. Mike told them to leave the girl alone or he was going to make them stop. They ignored Mike and kept messing with the girl and Mike made good on his promise defended her honor and took care of the bullies. Dad said that anyone who would do that for someone they didn’t have to was someone that he would have the most respect for. It was clear that respect for people and especially the ones who stood up for what was right, was something that my Dad valued greatly and that day he convinced me of the same.
Standing up for what is right is foundational to dealing with racism. Mike Sr. didn't have to step in that situation, but he made a choice to get involved. Taking initiative to be the change is what it is going to take to combat the evil of racism. It’s easy for me to step up to the plate because I have had to live through it. Some people could write me off as the victim and not really give me too much attention and sadly enough that has happened over the years. I have never let that stop me from doing what I do. Every time I run into racism, it just inspires me to get to work, but I can’t do it on my own. I need your
help…we need your help.
How can you help?
Ever since the murder went public, I have had many ask to hear my perspective or ask how can I help, what can I do? When it comes to my feelings, George Floyd’s murder has sparked something that both enrages me and encourages me. I am enraged at the fact that it is continuing to happen and that as the public debate ensues, the amount of people who I assumed because of being people of faith would be sympathetic are showing that they are not. Some are simply unaware of what they don’t know or some just flat out refuse to believe that racism still exists. I am encouraged however by the greater amount of people that I know who are waking up to the reality of what has been happening and are seeking to learn and do something.
My dad has always used the expression “it is what it is”. What that basically means is that when it comes to people and situations, they are simply what they are. Our job is not to sit back and cast judgement on what has happened, but it is to learn from it and move forward towards solutions. If you look on social media, it is full of people trying to be heard. We all want to know that we matter. But the problem is that we are all so busy talking at each other that we are not listening to each other.
“Don’t fight to be understood, but fight to understand” That is what a friend of mine reminded me of when it comes to communication in any relationship. As I talked bout in the previous article, the starting place for healing and understanding comes through real relationship. The reason why so many of my friends have been reaching out to me is that they have come to know me personally and value what I have to say. They see me as someone who can understand what they are feeling and be able to help them see what they need to learn. Am I some great expert with a PhD in race relations, nope, but because of my unique position of having lived between both worlds, I can offer some perspective not only from life experiences, but also from my 30 years of working with people as a vocation.
So what can you do? Everyone has an answer to this question, and it can be quite daunting to absorb all the suggestions. One of the best and most simple action plans comes from one of my fellow navigators Wanda G. Anderson who is the Director of Corporate Affairs and Risk Management for our organization. She offers four ways you can come alongside and help:
1. LEARN (educate yourself; research our nations’ history with racism, police/community engagement & brutality, systemic disparities. Posture yourself as a learner: a person open to cognitive paradigm shifts.)
2. LISTEN (your African American friends have a plethora of experiences that they might be willing to share for purposes of providing context; and many of these experiences happened very early in life. Make a commitment to listen more and talk less.)
3. LEVERAGE (your White privilege gives you access to platforms and arenas of power and influence that many African Americans simply do not have. Leverage your privilege to help dismantle institutionalized racism once and for all. Almighty God will show you how.)
4. LEND (lend your voice to the causes of justice, truth and equality. Please speak up! Your voice is needed and appreciated; but your silence can be interpreted as a disregard for Black lives.)
These are some wonderful suggestions on how you can take some next steps. They are practical things that anyone can do. All of us are gifted in many different areas and they are ready to be used to change our society for the better. It starts with a decision in your own heart that you need to take action followed by the courage to do it! Are you with me?
Stay Forever Strong!!