Ashley, 15, lost her father last year to a bullet in his head. We were talking about loss at a weekend retreat for high school girls, and the room got real quiet. Through tears, she shared about how devastating this event had been for her and her mom. No one else in the group of 20 girls could match that experience, not even close. But they eventually discovered they could relate to Ashley, just at a different level.
Where other girls could relate to her was through their emotions. Charlotte hadn’t spent time with her dad for 6 months after his remarriage and subsequent stepsister was born. Diana’s dad travelled on average 5 days a week, and often times was away on business for 2-3 weeks at a stretch. Four girls had lost grandparents they were close to in the past year. Three girls had best friends move away to another state this year, and many of the girls had been ditched by their good friends at some point in their school years, leaving them alone and without a group to rely on.
So all of these other-wise normal adolescents had experienced times of suffering and painful losses, leaving them feeling sad, lonely, confused, angry, hurt, disappointed, and disconnected. That is how they discovered they could relate to each other; not through their exact stories, but through the emotions they had felt. Which leads me to the question: “Can I, a white man, relate to the experience of black men?”
The answer is no and yes. No, I haven’t experienced the kind of racial profiling that black boys and men face every day. I wasn’t raised in the same manner or in the same neighborhoods as some black kids, so on that level I can’t exactly connect. But, like my high school girls above, I can relate on an emotional level.
Growing up, I felt like I had no voice at home, and I felt powerless to make things different. My older brothers bullied me a lot, and I left home with a lot of pent-up anger and resentments. I hated being controlled and overpowered, and I developed a distrust of authority figures and men. It didn’t take much to set me off, and I was overly sensitive to criticism and slights.
I remember one night driving home from a Blues game in a new car that my dad had brought home from the car agency he worked at. A police car followed me for about a mile down a road and eventually pulled me over. I was mad because I hadn’t done anything wrong, and already scared of the repercussions I’d receive at home if I got a ticket. The officer made me get out of the car and stand out in the open while they shined a spotlight right in my face. They made me stand there for about 10 minutes, and I could see the 2 cops laughing in their car. I was livid. They called my dad who explained why I was in such a nice car, and they finally let me go after some curt comments about spoiled rich kids etc. I grew up in a two-bedroom house with 7 siblings and two parents, in a lower middle class kind of neighborhood, so his comments really ticked me off. Luckily I kept my tongue.
I’m sure it’s not precisely the experience black males have with police officers, but I think my feelings probably match those of men of any color. And I believe all of the emotions I felt growing up allow me to relate at a feeling level with people of all races. Feelings are feelings, and we can all put ourselves in other people’s shoes and try to see things from their point of view. We can be sensitive, empathetic, and connected through our emotions.
When I hear some black men and women say that I can never relate to what they are going through because I am white, I think they are right for them. Our thoughts are powerful, and if you convince yourself you can’t connect, then you can’t. I just don’t agree. My 25 years of experience facilitating retreats has convinced me that despite our different stories, we are more alike than different, and that we can all relate and connect if we choose to.