The recent public discourse about social injustice and inequality in America has made me sad, and for a while I was at a loss for words. It triggered me to educate myself so I can better understand the disparity between Blacks and whites and make a commitment to stand and speak up whenever I witness unfairness, inequality, or injustice of any kind.
I found myself asking questions and doing a lot more listening. Because I can’t tell you what it’s like to walk through this world in a Black person’s shoes, it’s important to listen to the voices of Black people.
My brother, Jason, has two bi-racial teenage stepsons. They live in a nice neighborhood in Marion, Iowa, and the boys have been called the “N” word because their skin color isn’t light enough. They’ve been followed on numerous occasions by authorities for absolutely no reason. After a brief discussion with an officer, they hear something like “Oh, we thought you were someone else.” It doesn’t matter whether they’re walking, bicycling, or driving … if they are not with their white friends or their white parent, they must be aware of their surroundings in a way that a white person can’t possibly understand. What if this was you?
My niece is married to Tony. He’s a kind, hardworking Black man, and they used to live in Davenport. How do you explain to your children why a police car is parked as close as possible to where you’re trying to enjoy a picnic at the local park? What makes it harder to explain is that the white families at the picnic tables across the park are not being watched. What if this was you?
Tony told me that he considers himself lucky because he hasn’t been followed or taunted nearly as often as some of his Black friends. The stories he told made me sick, and yet he just brushed it off and said he’s been lucky. He’s had to prove to authorities and store managers that it was okay for him to have his young daughter with him. Because her skin tone is lighter since she’s bi-racial, people don’t think a Black man should be with a Caucasian toddler.
There was also the time that he leaned into his friend’s car to say hi to the children in the back seat … something we’ve all probably done at one time or another. For Tony, that was all that was needed for an officer to come over and accuse him of making a drug deal. He had to empty his pockets, provide his ID so a background check could be made, and his friend’s family all had to get out of the car so a search could be made. What if this was you?
Tony’s younger cousin is the only Black student in her high school. Imagine walking down the school hallway one day to see a poster of a monkey with your head on the monkey’s body? That’s not bullying … that’s hate and racism in action. What if this was you?
Tony and Trista have now moved from Davenport and into a nearby smaller community that is more welcoming. They took the initiative to introduce themselves to the small police force. They report that they love their new community, and they’ve had no incidents where they or their children have felt singled-out or targeted. People shouldn’t have to move to feel welcome in their own community. What if this was you?
Shola Richards is a tall, athletic Black man who is a successful author and keynote speaker. He lives in a nice Los Angeles community with his wife and two daughters. Twice a day he walks his dog Ace around the neighborhood with one, or both, of his daughters who are 11 and 8. He knows that by walking with his daughters he’s seen as a family man. For four years he’s walked his neighborhood, always with his daughters, because without them he knows he could mistakenly be seen as a large Black man who must be up to no good in this upper-class (aka white) neighborhood. What if this was you?
Khalil Romain lives in a nice neighborhood, but when he takes a walk, he describes how he doesn’t feel safe admiring the architecture for too long or he risks having someone think he’s casing the property. When he’s shopping, he keeps his hands clasped behind his back so clerks and security feel less inclined to follow him. As a graduate of prestigious Columbia University, he wears Columbia University gear whether he’s feeling school pride or not in hopes that it gives him a bit more credibility should anyone become suspicious of a Black man in a white community. He does his best not to get any bigger, not just to be healthy or feel good, but because the only thing scarier than a Black man is a large Black man. What if this was you?
One of my former work colleagues had saved a hefty down payment and secured pre-approval to buy his first home. He made an appointment with a real estate agent so the search could start for his upper-middle-class home. His enthusiasm was quickly diminished when the agent repeatedly took him to lower-income areas despite the proof that he was well beyond that level. He filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and learned that compared to whites, Black renters and homeowners are frequently shown substantially fewer units and are intentionally steered away from predominately white neighborhoods regardless of income level. What if this was you?
If we all make more of an effort to listen, learn and understand, we can bring about positive changes. We need to combat social injustice and inequality and speak up if we witness it. Because after all, what if this was you?
— Lisa Gottschalk was born and raised in Jackson County and lives in rural Maquoketa. She retired in 2015 after working for McGraw-Hill Higher Education in Dubuque, Iowa for 30+ years.