Crossing the bridge, becoming a cultural translator

Protesters gather near Saint Louis University as demonstrations over Michael Brown's death and other police shootings in Missouri spread.

Protesters gather near Saint Louis University as demonstrations over Michael Brown’s death and other police shootings in Missouri spread.

It’s been nearly three months since a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, shot an unarmed black teenager under circumstances that even now remain muddled. The fire hose of news out of that St. Louis suburb has gushed almost non-stop with reports about rallies and protests, autopsy findings, a U.S. Justice Department investigation and much, much more.

As I write this, I see where CNN is reporting that the Ferguson police chief is expected to step down as part of the effort by city officials to reform the Police Department.

Under the proposed plan after the chief leaves, city leadership would ask the St. Louis County police chief to take over management of Ferguson’s police force.

‘It would be one step in what local officials hope will help reduce tensions in the city as the public awaits a decision on whether the St. Louis County grand jury will bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown,” according to CNN.


Parfait Bassale

Parfait Bassale

In the days following the August 9 shooting, when national interest in Ferguson was surging, my friend Parfait Bassale wrote an exquisite post about the events in Missouri. I had the good fortune to share his piece — “Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant” — as part of my annual Voices of August guest blog project.

“As more facts about the incident in Ferguson surface, passions will rise, opinions will form and positions will polarize,” Parfait wrote. “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.”


One of the best things about Voices of August is that other contributors react in the comments, with honesty, humility and grace — and I was gratified to see that Parfait’s piece triggered so many responses. Generally speaking, people thanked Parfait for sharing his perspective while admitting they felt at a loss to truly deeply understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of a black American.

One commenter, Lynn, said in part: “As a white American, I simply cannot have that crossover experience. It is not possible. My skin is white. I do not think it matters in what class of white Americans I was raised … my skin is white and my experience is as a white American.”

Tammy, another commenter, wrote: “Parfait, this resonates with me on several levels. As a white woman, I hope you won’t think less of me when I admit to having at one time or another been that gal who holds their purse closer, or locks their doors – but it happens no matter the color of the man approaching – it’s a different fear that women live with sadly that makes men seem potentially menacing in certain circumstances. Also, it would be dishonest of me to say that I could remotely feel the same fear and anxiety about what my son will encounter in the world as a white child.”

Parfait has been doing quite a bit of traveling lately, so it was only recently that he had a chance to dive back in and address each and every one of the comments left on his original post. Reading them all again, three weeks after we had our VOA 4.0 meetup, I was struck by the honesty of the comments and the wisdom of his responses.

I encourage everyone reading this post to set aside 5 minutes to read Parfait’s piece (“Ferguson…”) and then scroll down to the comments.

I do so with the hope we can all find something to take away from this important conversation about race and how we might — just might — gain a better understanding of ourselves and of each other. In turn, maybe we can help others see the big picture and grasp the nuances too.


As one example, this is what I’m talking about:


“An African American couple is one of my family’s closest friends (Fred, a pastor, refers to my family as his white family) and he and his lovely wife, Evelyn, have one child, a son. They fear for their son’s life solely because of the color of his dark skin, in spite of his higher education, based on their daily experience as black Americans.

“I can feel empathy about this, but I cannot share this experience in my worries about my adult daughter. These worries are different and something perhaps others do not understand as you argue that we (white Americans) cannot understand your experience. My daughter experiences discrimination as well solely because she is very obese. She suffers daily from the thin among us glaring at her with no respect for her as a human, but merely disdain for her fat. In the end, they suffer by missing the chance to know this amazingly kind, gentle soul.

“It makes me terribly sad that we live in a world where people are still judged by factors other than their character, whether it be race, gender, age, sexual preference, etc. As a woman, I have experienced issues associated with my gender (first as a young woman dealing with daily unwanted harassment in the form of catcalls, etc., and now as an older woman, dealing with becoming invisible as elderly people do)…”


“Sister Lynn, thanks for your comments. They are pertinent on many points. I could not agree more that one’s experience will never be identical to someone else’s experience. However, let me try to address your statement “As a white American, I simply cannot have that crossover experience. It is not possible.” I think the key is how we unpack the construct “crossing over into another person’s experience.”

brooklyn-bridge-green-md“I like to use the analogy of a bridge. A bridge allows a pathway between two spaces which otherwise would remain separated. By crossing over, we are not claiming to become someone else (it would be arrogant to pretend so). Instead we are getting access to the other space and therefore hearing, seeing and smelling what it is like on the other side of the bridge. As a result of crossing over regularly, one becomes familiar with both spaces and become a guide for others. Some have referred to it as becoming a cultural translator.

“I am sorry about your daughter’s story. That is a very hard place to be. I wish her strength and lots of love from family and community to hold her spine through this.

“Despite man’s ability to be cruel, I do believe that the human race is a special race because of its God given potential to love a degree higher than any other race. Unfortunately, such potential has not yet been realized. Hence, we are operating from a purely reptilian and carnal mind.”

Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

Clip art:


2 thoughts on “Crossing the bridge, becoming a cultural translator

  1. George – I think the posts you write that I know in advance you are working on are some of my favorites. It’s always a treat for me to read how you take these thoughts you’ve been mulling over and turn them into thought-provoking prose. This is such an example. Thank you.

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