Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What Hasn't Changed

This week's cover of Time Magazine struck me.

I don't believe that the civil rights leaders of the 1960's would have imagined seeing scenes like this 50 years after their own struggle lead to what they believed to be true change.

I do not pretend to understand what it means to be oppressed in our society. I can tell you what it means to be misunderstood.

I went to college at St. Cloud State in St. Cloud, Minnesota. At the time the nickname for this city of 50,000 was "White Cloud." I can't speak to the racial make up of the city itself, but I can tell you that the campus was around 85% Caucasian, 10% international students and 5% African American. Racial tensions were high -- I am not sure why it was more of a powderhorn than anywhere else, but it was. Maybe it was the lack of diversity, but at the time the racial make up didn't look much different than most other cities of comparable size in Minnesota, and other cities didn't seem to have the problems St. Cloud had.

There was the case of the white student beaten by two black students to within an inch of his life. Another incident outside a bar resulted in the opposite result. And then there was the case of the black male student charged with raping a white female student.

That one shook up campus for some time, because sadly there was the typical argument as to whether it was rape or consensual sex. I honestly do not remember the outcome of the trial, but I remember the media coverage and the unsettled feeling on campus while it was going on.

During this time, I lived in an apartment house several blocks off campus. While campus itself was well-lit, city streets the lights were few and far between and the alleys seemed ominous. At least that's how it felt to walk those streets by myself, a white woman, coming home from the campus library at midnight. (And yes, I really did -- I worked the late shift, closed it down at midnight and walked home after.)

One evening, I was walking home from the library and following the advice of all those tips and tricks that had been published in the school paper about safety.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Walk confidently, looking in front of and around you, not at the ground. 
  • Walk closer to the street side of the sidewalk, so someone can't grab you from the alley.
  • If someone grabs you, yell something specific for others to do, like "Call 911!" instead of just "Help!" 
My spine stiffened when I saw a figure approaching me. The person was backlit by the street light behind him so I couldn't see his face, but I could clearly tell it was a man -- tall, broad-shouldered. The hairs on the back of my neck pricked up and my shoulders tensed. Would he grab me? Would he try to drag me down an alley? The honest, terrible truth of it is that I thought, "What if he's black?" because I thought that would increase my chances of being attacked.

We walked closer to each other, and I could see the tension in his shoulders as well. Was he about to make his move? Was I about to have my life go in a direction I never intended?

We finally got close enough to see each other. He was a black man, a student I assume, with a backpack stuffed with his studies, papers spilling out of hastily closed zippers, a book under his arm.

We looked each other in the eye, quickly nodded, looked down and kept walking our separate ways.

I realized as I passed him...he was just as scared of I as I was of him.

After all, it was only he and I on this street. I could scream, trip myself to provide bruises for the police and claim that he did it. The state of race relations on campus at that time meant that I would be believed and he would not.

Perhaps he had the same thought that I had when we passed, "Is she about to make her move? Is my life about to go in a direction I never intended?"

For a moment, I understood. We are all human beings. We all have fears. We are all individuals -- our race is not responsible for an individual's actions.

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