Can you come with me please? We walk down the hallway and step into my office.
I close the door.
Have a seat please.
And then we sit across from another. White man. Black boy. Oftentimes coming from and living in two completely different worlds. Does this matter? Is it significant? I think the answer to both questions is a resounding Yes.
But what choice do we have? I am a 45 year-old white elementary school assistant principal serving predominantly African American children. As is the case across the country, the majority of the students I see for disciplinary reasons are male. And since the majority of our students are African American, I meet with young black males more than I meet with any other subgroup of students.
We sit. We laugh. We problem solve. We share. And I feel honored that the majority of the time they accept me unconditionally. Is it because I am their assistant principal? Maybe. But I’d like to think it is because I make every attempt to build quality relationships with them. To get to know them. To learn their story.
And I try my best. But I know that matter how I hard I try I will never fully know their story. Despite the fact that I have lived in the same town that they do for almost my entire life. Despite the fact that I attended the very same elementary school in which I work today. Despite the fact that I sat in the very same classrooms that they sit in today.
Because I grew up a blond haired blue eyed white boy.
And they didn’t.
Trayvon Martin would’ve turned 21 yesterday. I wonder how many of the young men I meet with even know that. Part of me hopes that they don’t and another part realizes that they must. And I hate it.
My son will never have to worry about wearing a hoodie as he’s walking home at night. But many of the boys I see each day will do. So I wonder. When we are in my office. With the door closed. Trying to solve problems. Move forward.
How do they see me?
Because we are not the same. We never have been and we never will be. Dr. King did not wish for all people to be treated equally because we are the same. He wished for all people to be treated equally because it is right.
When I meet with these young men I am giving them everything that I’ve got and yet I often think that it is not enough. This is not because they are not open to receive what it is I have to offer. I think it is because I am a white man and they are black boys. And no matter how hard I try, I will never know what it is like to be them. To see the world through their eyes. To turn on the news and see young men that look like them being shot and killed for being…
I don’t know what.
So what do I do? What can I do?
Do I lament the fact that I can’t fully connect with these young men because I am white? Do I steer clear of certain topics because I am of a different race? Do I give up hope?
No. No. No.
I am a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a friend. These roles transcend race, so I can do everything in my power to prepare them for each one of them. No matter how far down the road they may be. I owe them that much.
Furthermore, I can listen and learn. From those that look like the young men that I serve each day. From those that live with the young men that I serve each day. Race is an important topic that we mustn’t shy away from. In her book White Teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley, writes of an encounter she witnessed with a teacher who was boasting to a parent that she doesn’t see race. The parent’s response was powerful and I have never forgotten it.
What rot. … My children are black. They don’t look like your children. They know they’re black, and we want it recognized. It’s a positive difference, an interesting difference, and a comfortable natural difference. At least it could be so, if you teachers learned to value difference more. What you value, you talk about.
Vivian Gussin Paley, White Teacher
Monday morning will be here soon. And most likely at some point in the day I will be called to speak with a young black male. I will listen. He will listen. We will talk. And hopefully we will both be the better for it. At the end of our time together, he will still be black and I will still be white. Nothing will change that. But we both have the power to change who we can and will become. By listening and learning each others stories. However different they may be.
And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk