By Parfait Bassalé
Last weekend I attended a multicultural event in the Portland area hosted by an amazing organization “Colored Pencils.” During the event, the presenter introduced to an audience of immigrants, representatives from the local police and fire department. In his introductory remarks, he said to the crowd: “These people work for you. They would rather be shot than see you hurt.” In light of the historical relationship between the police and minority groups in this country and the recent events in Ferguson, I could not refrain from asking myself: “Really? Are they really here for us?”
When I moved to the United States some 14 years ago, I first could not relate to the Black American experience. Century old narratives of discrimination and segregation were not the family stories I heard at the dinner table when growing up in Africa. For me at that time, racial profiling or prejudices were mere theoretical and historical notions which were no longer current. Up to that point, I had been privileged to never have needed to discuss race because my humanity was never denied me based on my color.
Consequently, I had naively assumed my experience to be true for everyone and became intolerant with Black American culture. I condemned it for being too angry, too “stuck in the past.” What I did not realize was that like many white people in America who never had to discuss their whiteness, I was suffering from the complex of racial privilege. A complex which results from a lack of empathy for those who have suffered historical trauma related to their race and still face triggers of this trauma on a daily basis.
Fast forward 14 years, I am now a father of an African American son who serves as a bridge into the Black American experience. I can now put a face, a name, a smile, a scent to the alarming statistics. My son, compared to my white colleague’s kids, is six times as likely to be put in jail for a minor crime. He is ten times as likely to be sentenced for a drug crime if as a silly and rebellious teenager he gets caught experimenting with drugs.
I must consider teaching him to be cautious about wearing hoodies for fear of being suspected to be a thief. I must ensure that he is proficient at white culture because otherwise, his African American behavior from a white point of reference might be interpreted as confrontational and violent. He could be the next Trayvon Martin, the next Michael Brown or one of the thousand anonymous victims who suffer fatal brutality due to the fears associated with the color of their skin. These facts cause hurt, pain and anger as I realize that for the sake of my son’s safety, I must pierce his bubble of innocence much earlier than needed because of his brown color. How disheartening!
As more facts about the incident in Ferguson surface, passions will rise, opinions will form and positions will polarize. My question to everyone is the following: How can my neighbor not fear me when he or she does not know nor understand my story, my hurt, my triggers and my fears? How can the police who are supposed to look after me, protect me when they are programmed to be suspicious of me, my language, my walk and my expressions?
What I am arguing for is a need for White America (anyone with the complex of racial privilege) to cross over into the Black American experience. Maybe then, she would think twice before holding tight to her purse because a black man stepped into an elevator. Maybe then, she would verbally discipline a derailed teenager rather than criminalize him. Maybe then, she would not use lethal force as a last resort when dealing with an unarmed teenager.
This piece originally appeared on the author’s Colombe Project blog.
Photograph: Jeff Roberson, The Associated Press
Benin-born artist, educator and author Parfait Bassalé specializes in the use of storytelling, music and reflective inquiry as methods for teaching empathy. When he is not performing his original music in cafes and pubs in Portland, you can catch him in classrooms facilitating empathy workshops using his invention: The Story and Song Centered Pedagogy.
Editor’s note: I met Parfait in 2008 through my work at The Oregonian. At the time, he was pursuing a master’s in international conflict resolution at Portland State University. For a time, he and his wife lived on the same block as us in Northeast Portland. They later moved to another neighborhood but I was delighted to recently reconnect with Parfait, who is a gentle soul as well as a fine musician.
Tomorrow: “Tiger lady” by Lakshmi Jagannathan