Each morning at my bus stop, a young man on his way to high school, talks to me. He jokes that I'm his therapist. We talk about school, college, and working, so he can get an idea of what's to come for his life. He talks about his family, classes, and friends. I think he likes having an older person outside of his family, who has nothing to gain or lose from hearing what's going on in his life, that he can turn to. I'm a safe person, I suppose. It felt awkward at first, since I don't have kids of my own, but now, it feels like an honor and a privilege that he trusts me enough to talk to me. I won't reveal his name or anything about him, except to say that he is a young black(his preferred adjective) man.
Today, though, he told me something that I had no idea how to respond to. He told me that he'd been feeling a little down lately, the last few months or so. I thought maybe it was a typical teenager depression issue, like I had, or maybe seasonal related, since we're just coming out of winter. But he told me that he'd been experiencing a level of something he couldn't really define, until I told him the word. He said that when he was younger, he thought everybody was the same, and fine with one another and that he had a future as bright as anybody else. But lately he'd heard statistics from somewhere that said white people preferred the company of their own kind most. As a young black man who had almost always been the only black kid in his class, this seemed to fill him with uncertainty. I imagine he was now thinking, were people only putting up with him and not really liking him? Add to this all the news we see lately of violence against African Americans, particularly men, in this country, and I think it sent him into a tailspin. I told him that I thought the word he was thinking of, was "disillusionment". When he asked me what that meant, I said it meant that he was seeing the world for the first time for how it really is, and was leaving him sad and disappointed. He agreed with that assessment. He looked at me with such helplessness, wanting advice for how to handle this tough situation, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders and say, "I am so sorry I can't give you any advice about this. This has not been my life experience..." My white privilege slapped me in the face and I had never before felt more unable to help somebody.
Once we get on the bus, we part ways, I get off sooner to transfer to my other bus, and he stays on to go to his school. But our conversation stayed with me all day today. I realized that there are two levels of tolerance and acceptance in this country. There's the governmental level. The level that makes rules that says we have to hire people based on their abilities, not the color of their skin. Laws and regulations that make it more fair for everybody to find employment or education opportunities. But there is another level: a personal level. This is when two people openly and honestly talk about race, and issues that affect us, and what we're trying to do to stop hate. This is the more important level, really, and often overlooked, I think. Because if a person gets a job they fought hard to get, what does it matter if everybody they work with resents them and makes it really difficult for them to feel included and welcomed and able to do their job well? The government can force open doors, but it cannot force the people already inside those doors to love and accept the people coming through them. That is up to us.
Today's experience was eye-opening to me, because I never knew there was an added level of anxiety and sadness that a teenager could experience when he realizes that the idyllic world he imagined he would come of age into, doesn't exist at all. But I get to go on with my life as it is, it's not affected by this young man's sadness. I could just go on and pretend it's not my problem. I can't do that though. The problem is, I'm not really sure what to do. All I can do, I suppose, is continue to open my heart and mind to others, listen to what they say, and incorporate it into my life. Now I have a story I can tell others to hopefully help open their hearts and minds. That way, one day, when the young men and women of color today get through those doors, they'll be met with people eagerly looking forward to them. It's literally the least I can do.