Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Black-White Existential Divide

The horrific events of recent weeks have once again spotlighted the color divide in this country. African-Americans tell us that Whites cannot know what it’s like to be Black in America. I accept this without reservation. Similarly, law enforcement spokespersons tell us that civilians can’t know what it’s like to be a police officer in an American city. I accept this as well.

These are just two examples of existential divides in today’s society. I live on one side of another of these. I’m a 26-year cancer survivor. I probably look a lot like you. Or your sister. Or your mother. But unless they’re cancer survivors, too, we’re not the same. From a survivor’s perspective, the world is split into two groups: those who have personally battled the disease and those who have not. Unless you’ve had "the Big C", you can’t know what it’s like to live on my side.

There’s a fundamental difference across the three existential divides of Race—Law Enforcement—and Cancer. A person like me who has had cancer will personally know how life differs before and after you have the disease A police officer likewise has a framework against which to compare life before he joined the force with life wearing a badge. A person of color can never know what it’s like to be White. And a White man can never truly experience life in a Black man’s skin.

This is more than a casual distinction. White people need to invest extra effort in order to put themselves in the other's “shoes.” I hope that as a society we are generous enough to do that. I’ve heard personal stories of what it’s like to be Black in our country today from my friends who are people of color. I know Black professionals who had to have “the talk” with their sons (and themselves). “Don’t make eye contact. Bow your head. Swallow your pride. Better to live to see another day.”

I’ve read the account of a friend of color pulled over for a routine traffic stop. This woman is an attorney and has multiple degrees, including from Ivy institutions, but she was paralyzed with fear. She sat in her car, hands gripping the wheel, assessing how to retrieve her ID from her purse without getting shot. Shot for (supposedly) not pausing long enough at a stop sign. She survived the incident, but now she’s struggling to contain the anger it has left her with.

I can’t completely appreciate what this must be like, but I’m immensely sad just imagining how these friends must feel. The Black-White existential divide is one that none of us can actually cross. But by reaching out to those of opposite skin tones and sharing their fear and their pain, we can at least hope to narrow the chasm.

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