Monday, January 16, 2017

Musings for MLK day

Yesterday, I went to see "Hidden Figures." The story follows three black women who were part of the early NASA space launches. These ladies were mathematical geniuses and were responsible for calculations critical to the successful launch, landing, and recovery of our spacecraft. They and their role were never recognized until recently because they were female and they were black.

I grew up in a fairly progressive household. Skin color was no more than a descriptive trait and carried no more weight about the person themselves than hair or eye color. I was born toward the end of the civil rights movement and by the time I was aware, blacks were supposedly equal in the eyes of the law. I had heard they were treated unfairly but it meant no more to me at the time than hearing of the plight of the American Indian. Race riots and the Trail of Tears were equally outside my scope of true understanding.

I will admit that I bought into some of the propaganda about the differences in caucasions and blacks. I don't know where I picked it up but I honestly believed that blacks were mentally inferior to whites by simple genetics. Their brains were simply incapable of the same capacity. I didn't speak of it much because it was never really relevant but I mention it now because it illustrates my ignorance.

In the fourth grade, I started in the magnet school program in Tulsa, OK. The magnet school program took students from across the city and put them together for a fully integrated learning environment. This was not forced bussing. You had to apply and be accepted into the magnet program. Per my understanding at the time the goal was to be 50% white and 50% black or as close as they could get. I continued in the magnet school program through high school graduation and I met some of the most incredible, talented, and intelligent people of all races.

As I watched the movie yesterday I came to the realization that I do not understand and cannot understand the reality that people of color or non-caucasion races have to endure. The best I can do is to recognize when someone - anyone - is being treated differently and do what I can to correct that. But, like the characters in the film, my view is forever colored by the "caucasion colored glasses" through which I see the world. Sometimes I just don't have the capacity to recognize those injustices. Maybe we, caucasions, are the ones who are mentally inferior. Not by genetics but by experience.

There is a very powerful scene in the film where Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) finally boils over. She has been assigned to one of the main buildings from the colored computing group. As it turns out, the only colored ladies restroom on the entire campus is in the building that houses the colored computing group - almost a quarter mile away from the building where she is assigned. Her boss, Director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), finally confronts her for being MIA for long periods of time every day. "Where do you go?" He asks. "To the bathroom." Comes her simple reply. "For fourty minutes!?" He's not angry but obviously being managerial, trying to address an issue. That's when she breaks. She explains to him her half-mile hike to get to and from the bathroom because there are no colored restrooms in any other building and it opens a crack in the flood gates as she educates her boss and co-workers about the kind of discrimination she has to endure. And you can see the awakening in Costner's eyes. You can see that she shone a light directly through his caucasion colored glasses so that he could see... so that he could understand just a fraction of what she has to go through for no other reason than she has dark skin.

It was in that moment that I realized I was like the Al Harrison character. I don't see it. It's nearly impossible for me to see the truth because my experience has not been painted with the same brush... or even the same paint. And, truth be told, sometimes that paint comes with prejudice mixed right in. I cannot stop my mind from reflexively telling me to shy away from someone who looks "less" than I do. I even do it sometimes with people I've known for over thirty years. I have to make a conscious effort to correct myself and recognize that our experience is different and not to judge them. And I hate that. I hate that I constantly have to tell myself that but I hope I will recognize and treasure the day when I don't: When none of us do.

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