My Racial Education

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Chicago made up its mind about me. As a kid, I took weekly trips downtown and watched people of every hue. Wandering through Marshall Field department store, I noticed the security guards who kept a close eye on me. These guards made up their minds about me. I remembered pressing my face against clear window panes of expensive stores along State Street, none of the white faces ever made eye contact with me during the Christmas season.

However, one yuletide season, my sister Rebecca and I stood beside a white Santa and I sat on his lap unsure what to think about this. This was the first picture I had taken with a white person, I tried not to make up my mind about this one Santa. This Santa was vulnerable, safe, and engaging. The experience helped me to keep an open, curious mind while navigating the racial terrains of the City of Big Shoulders. I crossed invisible boundaries of neighborhoods and institutional spaces where I was burned by judgmental minds that I didn’t understand.  

Yale University sociologist and author Elijah Anderson's argument in his recently released book, “Black in White Spaces” helped me to make sense of white resistance black people had to navigate in white spaces without any choice. Anderson observed, “black people migrated to towns and cities in the North and in the South, their stigmatized ‘place’ both followed them and preceded them. When Black people settled in their new communities, their reception was decidedly mixed: they were resisted and tolerated, and as their numbers grew relentlessly, the local White people worked to contain them in what became the Black section of town.” (p. 1) In other words, my North Lawndale home was where I needed to stay and I was discouraged from wandering into the white sections of Chicago because I was not wanted and didn’t belong.  

I needed key practices to keep me from becoming saddled with anger which would lead me on a route fraught with bad choices coupled with bad outcomes. What practices would keep me pressing forward despite the invisible walls of racism? These three practices that kept me resilient over five decades of life on this earth. 

Radical Proximity

One was radical proximity. What I noticed about my weekly observations of hurried living was that speed diminishes humanity. Humanity diminishes when people choose many invisible gates, barriers, and defensive postures to protect themselves from truly knowing other humans. I am not advocating blanket openness at all costs, but I am asking you to wonder with me about the fences we built over our hearts that become the prison walls preventing us from seeing the humanity in each of us up close and personal. These stories provide a window into my life that taught me proximity isn’t just a fad or technique, but the bedrock practice that nudged me to move closer to people like the white Santa. Hurried living cherishes speed, it takes the practice of “slow noticing” in order to speak deeply into people's lives. Noticing another’s humanity is more interesting than speed conversation. 

Radical Curiosity

The second practice is radical curiosity. My first personal experience living in North Lawndale I watched Roosevelt Road, the bustling avenue of commerce, flickering with orange and yellow flames after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968. I remembered one lone man pushed a shopping cart down Springfield Street with his loot from the supermarket where my mother, Essie Smith, shopped often. He faded into the dark night like a ghost. This event was my racial baptism. I was not adept nor equipped for how Chicago would teach me hard things. These kinds of events shaped me to keep asking questions, never give up on the truth, and believe good enough answers are sometimes not good enough. 

Challenge Prevailing Narratives

This curiosity led to the third practice. I challenge prevailing narratives that have made up their minds about me. While sitting on a friend’ porch on Springfield Street, we offered up dreams about our lives on a calm summer afternoon. I mentioned that I wanted to travel the world as a journalist. I dreamed of interviewing famous people, breaking news for one of the three national TV news organizations. One of the friends interrupted me with a dismissive tone. He said “Reggie, you are not going anywhere. You will be staying on this street with all of the rest of us.” I never uttered another dream among these friends. Yet, at the same time, I challenged his narrative about my future. I used his words as high octane fuel to prove him wrong.     

These three practices served me well over the years and my intention in these experiences might nudge a re-examination of the narratives controlling your life, risk being proximate with others who are different and spark a flicker of curiosity for common stories. In addition, I challenge white readers to evaluate their own racial narratives where one’s mind embraces only comfort and fragility. I heard former NFL player and CBS This Morning host Nate Burleson remarked, “the things you go through are the things that take you through.” That’s my aim for you.  

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