When I was in college in Miami, I was president of an organization called United Black Students. We held cultural events and festivals and what not, and we had an office on campus where students could just hang out, use computers, relax between classes. One day I was in the office with five or six other UBS members when a trembling, trepidatious 80-pound girl peeked into our office, whose skin was white as snow. She looked lost and frankly terrified. We had several options for how to react:
- Ignore her.
- Laugh at her.
- Say something like, “Hey, if you’re looking for the chess club, it’s around the corner.”
- Invite her in.
We picked #4. “Hey, what’s up? Need some help? Wanna come chill with us?” Luckily, she did. There were certainly some awkward moments, but over an hour later we had learned all about her home in North Dakota where she had never seen a black person in real life. “Only on television,” she told us. I didn’t realize there were people in America who had never seen a black person. She didn’t realize there were people in America who had never seen a tractor (at that time, I hadn’t). One Jamaican dude let her tinker with his dreadlocks, and she told us all what it’s like to live where there isn’t another house for miles, which was a completely alien concept to me. I think we were just as fascinated with her as she was with us.
She ended up joining UBS and being one of our most active members. And I’ll never forget that moment when she stuck her head in the door. She knew nothing about us, but in that one hesitant gesture, she showed at least a willingness to learn. If we had chosen any other option besides #4, she might have learned about black folks from the KKK instead of learning from us.
I had a similar experience at Rangemaster. When I walked in shaking like a leaf and told them I was afraid of guns, they could have said, “Well then you’re in the wrong place.” If they had, I’d still be afraid of guns to this day. Hell, I’d probably be on the board of the Brady Campaign instead of writing this blog.
If someone shows even the slightest interest in your skill set, experience, or point of view, don’t squander that moment. Even if you think the person already has his/her mind made up, or even if the encounter occurs under awkward circumstances, or even if the person approaches you with preconceived notions, incredulity, or skepticism, we still have to recognize what a golden opportunity we have in that fleeting instant. Take time to educate. Don’t be defensive. Defy stereotypes. If the person is sarcastic or cynical, don’t reciprocate. Be inviting. Force the person to afford you at least the benefit of an open ear. There is too much at stake.
Sorry for the soap box.