A nice man assessed a blown gasket in a window of my house this morning. He made Sibbie laugh while taking measurements. His estimate for the replacement was more than I expected, and without my even saying so he suggested other ways to ameliorate the issue, which would mean he wouldn’t get a penny from us. He did the estimate for free, wished me luck and to text or call with any follow up questions. He explained everything clearly without patronizing and I felt lucky to have him. We chatted while he drew up an estimate. He, referencing the recent horror in Las Vegas, aptly noted, “It’s nice to have little ones around, they make us shut off the news and bring joy back.” He told me about his young son and we shared some new parent insights and laughs together. Then, in the same casual, genial tone he’d been speaking, he said something deeply upsetting.
“Makes you wonder why he couldn’t go try that with some gangsters in the hood, see what happens to him there, leave people just trying to have a good time alone.” I froze. “It’s really horrendous,” was all I could muster, and he was on his way. In the moment I tried to replay and decipher what he was saying–but I knew what he meant. He meant that in poorer neighborhoods there is a proliferation of violence and gun-wielding residents and that the gunman would have been quickly killed by them. There’s also the suggestion that violence is common and therefore less impactful. The subtext here is that Black lives matter less. In that hypothetical hood there are children, women and men who would unfairly bear witness to evil. Exposure to violence doesn’t mean you are immune to it or ready for it when it happens or it doesn’t hurt. There is no getting used to violence–there is a taxation of the body and soul that the individual pays in myriad ways, no matter their color or address. We cannot shift violence to any place to make it easier to handle, and suggesting that this should be done is a racist act. The assumption that Black Americans feel less devastated by violence disallows true empathy and prevents future equality.
What I did wasn’t much better. I said nothing. I can blame my confusion about what he said initially, I can blame my indecision about what words would make sense and would best meet him where he was in his misunderstanding, I can blame my gratitude for his help, that I was disarmed by his kindness. But as a person who wants so badly for equality in this world I failed in my chance to bridge the missing piece for this man, who didn’t know he’d said something poisoned by a sick world. That was my job. I wished I would have at least asked in a genuine tone, “what do you mean by that?” and if what I assumed was right, “I’m surprised to hear a person I found so generous would say that. No community needs violence, what we need are policies to prevent these things from happening anywhere.” Then I would engage more if he responded and if not thank him again for his help and say goodbye.
“Today is not the day for policy discussion,” says Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But when is that day? That day was so long ago–before Orlando, Sandy Hook, Columbine, many nameless others… And the time to talk about violence against the Black community is now until it stops being such a blatant humanitarian crisis. At this moment I can only move forward by better preparing myself for such an opportunity to reach out, that I am ready with the words that illuminate hate in a meaningful way. Here are my next steps to better prepare for that:
- Be alert and assume the best. Give that person a real chance to clarify what you heard. Asking, “what do you mean by that?” or “I don’t understand…” gives them a chance to prove you wrong and you a chance to better assess what is going on and how to open a conversation.
- Think about where that person is and what he or she might not understand. Take a deep breath and prepare to say things simply and without emotional pleas.
- Fill in the blanks. Offer an alternative viewpoint that assumes they are good-natured and reasonable. Giving people a perspective outside their own only is beneficial if that person is open to hearing it. Nothing closes someone off like feeling judged.
Be aware and lead with kindness. That’s really hard when someone has just said something that you know is deeply wrong and insidious. The world doesn’t slow down and give you time to process moments like this–so our best best is to be ready. I’m guessing most people saying passing but hurtful remarks such as this are unaware, and breaking that news to them is a tightrope walk. The first step is your chance to have time slow a little and compose yourself for an uncomfortable but necessary conversation. I know it will be awkward and I’ll regret the words I flub and my heart will beat fast. But I will have said something that might ring in his ears instead of silence that complies with his harmlessly stated, harmful ideas.