Last week, The Garden Island published a column by Michael Mann, a 50-year-old black man, describing an all-too-typical encounter with a white woman who reacted with unconcealed fear as he walked past her.
Mr. Mann announced that he is fed up with white people treating him like a potential criminal because of his skin color. A few days later, the paper published a letter by Barry Dittler calling Mr. Mann “guilty of the same ‘crime’” as those who stereotype him.
I’m writing this because it would be too sad (and too predictable) if our community’s only response to Mr. Mann’s courageous statement was to chastise him.
In case anyone thinks Mr. Mann is misinterpreting or imagining these incidents, I can share a few of my own experiences as a white man on the opposite end of similar encounters. (I’m sure there have been many more I never noticed.)
Walking down a busy street in Washington, D.C., I instinctively felt for my wallet when I saw three black teenagers coming toward me. I wouldn’t even have realized why I’d done it if they hadn’t burst out laughing.
In New York, I let the door of an apartment building swing shut in the face of a black woman in a hoodie. I won’t forget her private look of disappointment, frustration, humiliation and exasperation, as she dug in her bag for her keys.
Like Mr. Dittler, some of my closest friends are black, but I have no doubt that if it had been a white person who “looked like she belonged,” I’d have held the door.
It’s human nature to categorize people as us and them. Everyone does it, no matter their color, gender, culture or sexual identity. The best any of us can hope to do is be aware of our biases, and try to educate ourselves about our society and its history.
Today, many white people still benefit from the wealth, status and opportunities their ancestors gained in a society that treated black people as property and took all of its land from brown people.
There’s little agreement on what we can or should do to restore the communities our nation intentionally destroyed. But even if you don’t think society owes anything to anyone, I urge you to put the politicized debates aside and consider what you owe to every human being: Respect, courtesy, the willingness to consider what they have to say.
If we want protesters to stop shouting in the streets, then we should listen to them when they speak to us in a quiet voice. And if we truly want to live in a world where people don’t bear grudges based on stereotypes, we need to quit being so defensive and start being willing to acknowledge that sometimes anger is justified.
Think how infuriating it must be to present a lifetime’s worth of evidence that you are stereotyped for being black, only to be told you are guilty of stereotyping whites. We can’t change the past or fix everything in the present, but can’t we be willing to hear out someone’s story, even if it might say something about us we’d rather not hear?
John Teschner is a resident of Moloaa.