“Man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, can never go back to its original dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
What if we all just stopped and listened to one another? I mean really shut up and listened without a “yes, but…” ready on our lips. That yes, but… that tells the other person we’re not really listening, we’re merely waiting to convince them that our perspective is the correct one.
I have a friend I’ve known for over twenty years. She’s one of the most intelligent, articulate, beautiful people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. We met after a police officer friend was killed in the line of duty. The city denied the officer’s surviving partner spousal benefits and I reached out to Nadine’s LGBTQ civil rights organization to assist. She became and still is one of my dearest friends.
I’m a retired police officer, she’s a civil rights activist.
She is black, I am white.
Over the years, we’ve had many spirited discussions. Mostly we agree. When it comes to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and most social issues, she and I are in sync. But then, there’s been the thornier issue of race that has challenged our simpatico relationship over the years in subtle, unspoken ways.
One night, few years later, I got a call that she had been arrested. Sitting in my own squad car, patrolling the city of Tampa, I couldn’t believe my friend was arrested in another town for handing a flyer supporting a non-discrimination ordinance to a citizen. I was outraged to find out she had also been injured. I tried to call her a couple of times, but she didn’t answer. She wasn’t able to speak to me about the incident for a few weeks. I thought it was only because of my profession and her arrest. I will tell you honestly that we talked at length about the officer’s conduct and the probability of the officer resenting the LGBT ordinance.
We didn’t talk about race as a factor. It never occurred to me at the time that it was important. I was wrong.
For the past few years this country has been embroiled in an on-going debate about race and policing. Most of us have opinions one way or the other. Race colors the way we see the world, even though most of us try to deny it. We tell ourselves a million reasons why race is not a determining factor for any number of events. We tell ourselves we are enlightened. We want to be post-racial. I was guilty of all of it.
Then my friend wrote an essay about tensions between the black community and the police. To illustrate her point about the historic abuses, she bravely recounted her own family story. She told of her grandfather, a Georgia farmer, lynched by an angry white mob with the town sheriff riding shotgun in the car. She told of her own arrest and the unprovoked escalation that caused her permanent injury.
Her unflinching assessment of race and my profession made me cringe. She described racism experienced in her life. I wanted her to stop. I wanted to turn away. She said black lives matter. My mind screamed, “Yes, but…”
But, what? It wasn’t me? My family didn’t own slaves? I didn’t arrest you?
I realized that we had never fully discussed race in all our years of friendship. If I’m honest, I know it’s because I arrogantly assumed that having her and other African-American friends meant that I wasn’t racist. I was progressive.
But… To be truly a friend I have to be all in. If my friends are willing to talk to me about their experiences being black in America, in all its ugliness and bias and injustice, then I owe them my undivided attention. I have to shut up and listen. My black friend’s story is hers to tell. Her truth does not require my approval. It’s not about me.
There is no yes, but…