I just returned from a trip to the store. On my way home I was stopped for a long time at a red light; on the corner of the busy intersection, a teenage boy with dark brown skin was waving a sign shaped like a huge arrow on which was written something about pizza, I think. It was hard to read because the young man was dancing and spinning and tossing the sign in the air. His dance moves were pretty impressive and he twirled the sign over his head and swung it around his body like a drum major. But the big arrow sign was much less manageable than a baton and kept clunking him on the head, so the overall effect was more comical than graceful.
Behind me at the stoplight was a car with two white men, probably in their 30s. I was already irritated with these guys as they had been tailgating me for the past several blocks, and now I had a chance to watch them in my rear view mirror. I could see them quite clearly. They were laughing at the dancing teenager, pointing at him, poking each other, rolling their eyes, clutching their bellies. The rage came over me so fast it brought tears to my eyes.
This wave of anger settled as an intense ache in my jaw and neck. I tried to talk myself down, told myself maybe they were simply appreciating the boy’s highly entertaining performance. But then he executed an imperfect spin and the sign hit him in the face. He bent over, clearly in pain, and the two men behind me howled with laughter. Their faces wore sneers that oozed contempt, ridicule, condescension. And for a moment the boy with the big arrow was my son and I wanted more than anything in the world to physically hurt those men.
As I was realizing how impossible it would be for me to carry out my wish, my emotion was displaced by a thought: here I have an opportunity to see if I can do that thing I keep talking about – recognize that I’m being triggered, raise myself up to a place of nobility, choose a higher-self capacity. I could acknowledge that they are obviously suffering from a spiritual disease and send them healing compassion. It’s not like they’re actually hurting anyone but themselves. And I really tried to pull this off. I have to give myself some credit for that. I really tried.
Then the light turned green; the car with the laughing, sneering white men shot past me, pulled in front of me, then cut across oncoming traffic into a parking lot. The boy picked up his arrow and spun it in a mad circle. And I drove home, hoping that writing about this would somehow dissipate my rage.
There are layers and layers of complexity to peel away before I’ll come anywhere near understanding what an authentic spiritual response might have looked like. To begin with, my reaction was as much about gender as it was about race; I’ve had too many run-ins with unconscious male conditioning lately and my trigger point is set on “hyper-sensitive.” But also, late last night, I engaged in a Facebook conversation about personal prejudice and systemic racism. The friend who started the thread – a black man not quite young enough to be my son, but almost – had written about violence against black men and I had responded with my usual comments about white people’s responsibility to transform themselves. This was his response:
“That is fine on an individual level. However we are not just dealing with individuals. We are dealing with institutions as well. My question is how do we measure our success around this issue? Who determines the pace? And this pace is literally killing us. . . stop and think of what you would do if your children were literally being profiled and shot in the street. What if they were being herded into a prison industrial complex, unfairly sentenced, had twice the unemployment rate, sub-par schools, etc. Substitute your children's names for the names of some of these other children that experience these things every day. Put your child's face in their place. You feel that differently. It hits you in a scary place. The urgency becomes real...maybe. If we can love at that level, what would you do for those children then? What would you do for your own children?”
So here are the questions I’m left with today, Wednesday, the 18th of September, 2013: What would I have done if the two men had been on foot and had physically or verbally threatened the teenage boy? What might those white men do to someone else? What if they become policemen? Prison wardens? Middle school teachers? Corporate executives? Is it possible – or even appropriate – to feel anything positive for these men who are noble beings at their core and are simply acting out what they’ve been taught? And then my friend’s questions: who safeguards, protects, and nurtures my black brothers, fathers, and sons while white people are working our thing out? Can I do that? How can I do that? What would I do for my own children?