On the morning of 9/11, I was driving to the college when the first plane hit. In class that morning, we watched together as the second plane struck its target. The administration cancelled classes sometime around noon as the country was in shock. On my way to the parking lot, I was surprised to find two students sitting on a bench. When I learned that they had no rides until later in the afternoon, I offered to take them home.
As we neared a fast food restaurant, they asked if I would mind stopping. As I pulled into the long lunch-time line, I noticed a parked UPS truck with the lights on. Without a second thought, I put my car in park, jumped out, took one step up, pushed in the knob to turn off the lights, and returned to my car.
My whole life I was taught to help when possible.
When I got back in the car, both young ladies were looking at me as if they had just witnessed something they could not believe. I was equally shocked by their responses. One of the young women hesitated, then said, “Miss, we…we could NEVER do that. We would get arrested.”
It was in that instant, that simple moment, that my eyes opened to something I could not un-see.
I realized that I walk through the world differently. Without earning it, I am given the benefit of the doubt.
Prior to this experience, I would have sworn that I “got it.” I had and still have friends of every background. I believe in equality. I have spent my life helping everyone, especially those who need someone to offer a hand, to guide them on their upward journey. I thought I understood.
But then, I looked into her eyes and heard her heart. So simple. So deep.
And, little by little, I started to see things I had never seen before, things that were easier for me just because I had won the genetic lottery, at least one very important factor.
A week or so later, my husband and I were at the beach. His stunt kites went down, tangled in the sea grape trees at the beachside edge of one of the multi-million dollar homes. Again, he did not hesitate to free the kites, trusting that if someone questioned his presence, he would be given the benefit of the doubt, the opportunity to explain.
I received a legacy of being “normal” that is so deep I can’t see it unless I consciously look. And, I was taught not to look. I know I have to see the dirt to clean up the mess.
There is no doubt that individual effort matters. A LOT.
Two kids growing up side by side with similar families can have very different stories. One can make all the right choices,(or at least most of them!), and be successful while the other can make poor choices and have a very different outcome. That is absolutely true.
But, what if we talk about neighborhood kids from two different neighborhoods. The neighbor families will likely share similarities—in income, education-level, ethnicity, race, and depending on the area, even religion. The neighborhood kids have an equal chance with each other, but the kids from different neighborhoods–let’s say one suburban and one inner city–experience the world very differently. The societal expectations and the way the two sets of kids are perceived are very different. They do not have the same access. One set is likely to have parents who have successfully navigated the systems. The other set of kids are on their own, navigating uncharted territory with little guidance. One set is expected to succeed. The other is looked on with doubt and suspicion.
I worked hard. That is true. And, I received a birthright, equally true. My white skin is part of that. It is not the only part, but it is a significant part, and for most of my life, I didn’t have any idea what that meant. Not really.
I am still learning. And the only way I know to do that is with an open heart. And an understanding that I still have much to learn.