Kevin Fong (KNFP 14) is the founder of Elemental Partners, an organization that provides clarity, alignment and integration to cultivate health and prosperity in communities and workplaces. He lives in San Francisco with his partner and two sons.
I live across the street from a bus stop, and every half hour riders congregate on the corner. I sometimes observe the social dynamics occurring among those waiting. Some stare into their electronic devices without exchanging words or even a glance to acknowledge those next to them. Others nod, exchange greetings and make small talk with those around them.
When I’m at that bus stop, I find myself somewhere in between. As an introvert, I’m more comfortable focusing on my book than those around me. But I always scan the group to see where I stand. Most of the people of color that I know, along with women, gay folks, differently-abled and differently-sized folks, do the same thing. It’s a habit that comes as instinctively as breathing. Yet there are some people who claim that they rarely, if ever, do the scan, and I wonder what it would be like to live on their planet.
A few days ago, I was at the bus stop with four other people. I scanned to see two women, one Asian and one white, and two men, one African-American, the other white. Typical of this stop, we stood in a loose cluster and not in a line. As the bus approached, the white man moved toward the curb and the African American man stepped back. I too stepped back to let the women go before me. When the door opened, two white men shuffled past all of us and stepped onto the bus first. The rest of us followed. As I boarded, Ruby, the driver who is African-American, gave me a familiar glance. It wasn’t the first time we had seen this happen and it wouldn’t be the last.
During the 7-minute ride to the subway station, my internal dialogue raced. Why didn’t I step up to the curb? How did I end up boarding last? Why don’t I let loose and give these white guys a piece of my mind? Why do I let this stuff get to me? I breathed, sat still and kept my mouth shut, but the dialogue in my head hasn’t gone away even after several days. I would bet that the guys who boarded first never gave it a second thought.
Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of Women’s Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, provided helpful insights in her article featured in Salon.com. As she was settling in for her flight from Newark to New Orleans, she nodded hello to a (white) woman next to her, along with her husband and two young sons who sat across the aisle. She also noticed this woman sending a text message: “On the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat n-.” Brittney's article recounts her unfolding internal conversation as she considered her next move.
Instead of taking the angry black woman approach, which would have likely gotten her evicted from the plan, Brittney confronted her row-mate by saying, “I just want to let you know that your words (on that text message) are hurtful. I hope you don’t pass that kind of ignorance down to your beautiful boys.” Though her row-mate made a less than conciliatory response, Ms. Cooper found peace within herself.
Though I may want to release the angry Asian man within, as the father of two brown-skinned young men, I need to seek and model a more compassionate response. I look to Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, who advocated for peace as he has sent messages of hope, faith and temperance in the wake of the verdict. I am even reminded of my own father's skill as he navigates his way through the veiled but clearly racist barbs he receives from the old guys at the retirement community who see no problem in making Chinese laundry jokes to his face.
Brittney Cooper, Tracy Martin, and Bob Fong inspire me to practice forgiveness and compassion while striving for justice and healing every single day. I’m going to remember this when on my next bus trip.
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