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Combating Racism With Empathy

  • April 15, 2018

The lowest low was when I was in the Missouri History Museum and the Chief of Police from Charlack was there and he used the phrasing “rioting” versus “protesting” about the events of the first night when the gas station was set on fire and looted. And the audience, a lot of people in the audience, they lit him up. I’m not trying to defend him, but I agree with what he said. I didn’t see that evening as peaceful protesting. Was peaceful protesting going on in parts of that community? Absolutely. Was there an element that was there creating havoc? Absolutely. Do I need to be the one defending that narrative when we know that the media is already out there blasting the looting and rioting? I didn’t need to. So it was hard for me because in that moment I felt silenced. And as somebody who feels like he’s been a part of the movement in different ways, I felt like I should have been able to have a voice. I felt like I was fearful about how I would be interpreted and how my words would be interpreted if I came to his defense as a White police chief in the midst of everything that was going on. So, the lowest low wasn’t about him not being able to own his opinion. It was about me not feeling like I could support him in that moment.

A high for me will be to look back and share with my daughter that when she was a year old her father was out there fighting for what he believed in with the NAACP where we could hopefully create a community so when she gets older she feels like she can be a part of it as a biracial child and not have to deal with some of the racial issues that are going on.

Ya know, everything that was happening in St. Louis was also happening during STL250, the 250th anniversary of the city. The Missouri History Museum did a time capsule and I wrote a note. The beauty of the Missouri History Museum is that history is happening right now. And they really do a wonderful job of capturing that. There was an opportunity for me to participate in some small way with a message to the city. So I wrote my vision – a letter to the City of St. Louis to be opened in 2064. And I wrote this letter regarding my daughter, and what I expected for her 50 years from now to where, hopefully, she was living in a community that fully embraced all of the talents that diversity has brought—racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation—all of it. Anything that encompasses what diversity truly is. Hopefully, our city will embrace that so she can feel like she can be all of herself.

It’s hard for me because my daughter is biracial. And while society has said the one-drop rule and all these other pieces related to who’s Black, who’s White, who’s not – I don’t get to make that decision for her. While her skin color may afford her some White privilege, it may also disadvantage her in some communities where she chooses to identify as a woman of color. So because of those pieces, I need to be mindful of making sure that she has all of the richness that is a part of her mother and father, and hopefully we live in a world we she can step out and say, “You’re not putting me in a box. I don’t give a care if you think I’m this or that. I define me. You don’t define me.” So I do my part with the Anti-Defamation League and the A World of Difference Institute by trying to create safe spaces for people to work through and process these things. But I can’t stop there, because if the world isn’t there yet when she’s making those decisions, I need to make sure she’s confident and secure in herself to make those decisions.

I don’t know everything that I think that I know. I’m still on my journey and I’m going to be on my journey for the rest of my life. And if I can empathize with the folks who are where they are, then we get another ally in this fight. We get another individual that’s willing to have those conversations in their spheres of influence. When you asked me what I could use right now, it’s a hard answer for me because professionally I could say some funding, and connections, and people who are willing to devote the time and energy and effort for creating space for more of our community to have these conversations in our K-12 environments and in our colleges and universities. But selfishly, I also think about what I need and that’s the continued support of people who respect me and don’t. When I say those who don’t, I’m really talking about the people that you look at and automatically don’t respect because of some stereotype. I shared with you earlier that I got pulled over the other day and there was an automatic “This is probably not going to be a good experience.” And it was. I got a warning, it was all good, and I went about my merry way. But you know what? Those are the stories that as a Black man I need to share. And they’re few and far between. I’m not trying to start this campaign like, “Hey, everybody! I’m a Black man. I had this good experience with a White cop.” No, I’m not saying that. Unless we change the narrative, then we’re going to be caught in the cycle of us versus them. And us is also me. Because the cops are my neighbors, the cops are my family, the cops are people who live in my community who want, most of the time, the same things that I want – love, happiness, validation. So if I’m only going to be talking about the time this cop did some negative shit to me, then I’m feeding into the cycle. I’m not saying don’t talk about it if it happened, but talk about everything. Talk about the moments where he let me go and he didn’t have to. And I appreciated that. And it’s not the first time. I’ve had some bad experiences with cops, but I’ve had some good experiences, too. Sometimes when they could have locked me up in a couple of situations, they didn’t. And I’m respectful of that. I’ll be the first one to tell somebody.

I think there’s value in all of us listening more. I think about empathy. I really do. If we all can relate to one another more – relate to our struggles even if you’re not disadvantaged by one of the social identities that we tend to highlight, although we all face adversity in different ways – if we could just stop for a moment and think about what that feels like, I feel like that could change things. My suggestion for someone who doesn’t play in that headspace is to create an opportunity for them to do that. Early on in my career I wanted to teach people. So if you didn’t get it… I was looking for those aha moments, those gotcha moments so I could trip you up. And what was that about? What purpose was that really serving others than to make you uncomfortable? None of that is helpful. I had to come to my own realization and recognizing that there’s a role for everybody in our community to do this work. I don’t do this work because I get paid to do this work. I do this work because I found an opportunity to turn my passions into a profession, to turn my thoughts into an opportunity to engage folks around critical thinking, and to live a life that allows me the comfort of knowing that I’m doing the most I can each day to try to create space for people to be all of themselves.

Tabari Asim Coleman is the education director for the ADL’s A World of Difference® Institute for the Heartland Regional Office. (Missouri, Eastern Kansas, Southern Illinois). This article is reprinted from Forward Through Ferguson.