Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A white boy's induction into America

I grew up white. I still am white. I want to testify that black Americans have "friended" me into their communities. Have allowed me to share things I could never have been a part of without their friendship.

No, I don't mean on social media. When these friendships started social media didn't exist.

I grew up in a white community. My first experience of living with black men came in the Air Force in the late 1950s. Several black fellow airmen were friendly to me and I welcomed their friendship. Still I sometimes fell into an attitude of superiority.

When I left the armed forces I returned to my  essentially white community, attending a local university. My friendships at college were entirely white. While not hostile to black people, I felt impatience with the black men and women who were "sitting in" at the drugstore lunch counter across from the university, asking for the same service as whites. I could live with the proprietor's privilege of serving whom he chose, and of turning others away.

Studying law in Washington, DC, in the early 1960s, I encountered a much broader ethnic mix than I had at college. Any attitude of superiority on my part vanished, as it became obvious that my legal talents were no more than average - on a good day. My fellow students came with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.

On graduation, I was fortunate to gain a job in a Texas U.S. Attorney's office. There the young black woman who was my administrative assistant refused to put up with a condescending attitude, and instead patiently worked with me as I learned. Likewise, my first supervisor was a capable black woman who was not a lawyer. Imagine, a lawyer working in a law office under a non lawyer! Working with two black women - one over and one beside me - could have been a problem had they not been friendly and patient.

As I gained experience a black Assistant U.S. Attorney, Carl Walker, Jr., befriended me. That friendship was tested. For example, I remember how much I dreaded meeting Carl the morning after Dr. King was murdered in Memphis. I feared that Carl might attribute his death to "my people." That morning our coffee group had our usual meeting in the canteen. Carl was unchanged. I was grateful.

What lesson do I draw from my "cross cultural" experiences with black Americans? There is hope for our so-called "American Experiment." We can become one nation. We can become supportive friends even while we remain creatures of our particular cultures.

It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and I believe this. Today in America there is much vigilance toward and fear of strange foreign cultures. However, while vigilant, we must recognize that our fears of other cultures can exceed their actual potential for doing harm and can make us ignore the potential for good relationships.

Through the kindness and forbearance of black colleagues over the years I have learned to value them, their culture, their interests and their friendship. I have learned to value their work and have learned from them how to do mine. I pray that I always will remember how people from this American culture that was strange to me made me their friend, their colleague, and often their pupil. I pray that I will be the same kind of friend to other people who start out strange to me.

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