Growing up in suburban Chicago I had the mistaken notion that racism was a thing of the past. When a long-term friendship with someone from a different race morphed into a dating relationship, I learned how mistaken this notion was. The first time we walked into a restaurant as a couple, people glared at us. It was almost as if they wanted to ask what the two of us were doing together? In sharing this experience with a peer back at Purdue University a few days after it happened, they commented, “Hoffer, I would never date a black girl.”
I could not believe what I was hearing.
My peer had grown up in a different part of the country and did not represent the countless people I encountered at Purdue University with views of racial equality. So, their ignorant, especially hurtful, comment notwithstanding, I pray that given the vantage point of twenty more years of life experience they would take a “do over” on what they said that day.
Why share this experience today? Well, like most of the country I have been saddened by the events that have transpired the last seven days. Like my experience walking into the restaurant, I thought we were past this in our country, but I have come to realize all over again that we are definitely not.
A few years after the incident above, I found myself student-teaching at Sullivan High School in downtown Chicago. Those few months exposed me to everything from illegal immigrants (such a callous phrase when said person works harder than all the other kids you teach and was brought to the country as an infant). There were also new students from Africa, and countless African American kids from the inner-city. As every High School teacher can attest, I learned more from these kids than they did from me. And as I have mentioned on this blog before, the sight of Mercy, one of the new students from Africa, tasting chocolate for the first time is one that I will take to the grave.
This experience taught me that life is more complex than CNN or Fox News (or whatever you prefer) makes of it. Topics like racism and illegal immigration are more complex than a short blog can dwell into, the point is that their complexity helped me come to a life-altering realization: It is better to say “I do not know what so and so is experiencing” rather than trying to argue, condemn, or offer tweet-sized rationales of what is happening.
The fact is that I do not know.
This blog is about leadership. To be someone worth following, you need to be open to the other side. Openness involves thinking, listening, and understanding. How much better would things be if some of are leaders did that? What if they read voraciously about civil rights and talked directly with generations of people who have experienced racism? Would their thoughts and words change?
This week has reminded me of my own need to do all the above. And I commit to doing so.
I am obviously not an African American. So, I do not know how I would feel if I were an African American right now.
As a white American, however, I can say that I am mourning with those who mourn.
I am incredibly sad.
As a follower of Jesus, I can say that this is not what God intended. Disunity is always from the dark side and never from God.
I suppose that what I have written so far might turn off some of my readers. My intent with this blog is to share leadership insights that encourage you to be someone worth following. You don’t have to buy-in to my faith in Jesus –all faiths are welcome – but I would ask for you to be open and respectful towards others. We can learn from everyone!
Similarly, you do not have to have the same passion or zeal for racial equality that I do. But I would ask you to be open and interested in race relations because this world needs more people bringing people together.
We need justice.
We need to bring order out of chaos.
We need to mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with those who rejoice.
These are the things that real leaders do…