In One Voice…Finally

The heart wrenching events of these past few weeks – the protests, the brutality, the killings, the  basic lack of humanity on so many levels – have left me sometimes in tears, always in pain. It is clear that many Americans join me in this sorrow.  Though this is not the first time we have witnessed such atrocities, I believe it is the first time we, as a nation, are truly paying attention.

I believe, too, that this wave of social awareness, thankfully, is part of a larger plan for us. Let’s think about it. Even before Covid-19, we were a country plagued. This affliction was not a physical virus, but rather a mental one – we were plagued by “complacency”. Insidious, far-reaching, exhausting…but easy to ignore. As long as we weren’t impacted, we let it be.

Then came corona and this virus, in a way, leveled the playing field. It didn’t discriminate. We were all impacted. And when it hit, our sluggish, empathic gene kicked into high gear.  As we stood in food lines, we began to understand food insecurity.  As we lost our paychecks, we understood financial hardship. As our schools closed, we struggled to access education.  As our hospitals became overwhelmed, we feared for our health. As we were pushed and shoved by law enforcement, we lost dignity. As we faced an unpredictable future, we understood vulnerability. Even if we were not standing in those food lines, we saw people there who looked just like us.

And sheltering in place, alone or with loved ones, with lots of time and few commitments, we finally took notice. We took to the streets, standing side by side with our brothers and sisters, because now, their pain was also ours. United, our voices are being heard.  Determined to bring change, complacent no more, we are a single force against injustice. Ironically, the pandemic, while wreaking its unforgiveable havoc, is ultimately uniting us.

I was educated in Catholic schools up through 12th grade.  My elementary school was totally white – not a single person of color among us for the entire eight years I was there.  All my classmates, indeed, my entire neighborhood was white Irish, Italian and Norwegian kids that looked like me.  I never questioned this lack of diversity.  It was my normal.

In high school I met my first African American.  Her name was Pearl and she was one of maybe 2-3 girls of color in the entire school of 1000 young females.  Pearl was in all my classes.  Pearl’s last name began with a “B” – mine with a “D”.  So, as was the practice in Catholic schools in those days, we sat in alphabetical order in each class. Pearl and I sat close to each other.  For four years, for six hours each school day, she was a stone’s throw away from me.  I’m sure we were friendly. I know we spoke.  But I didn’t know her.

And I think now that it must have been really difficult for Pearl – as a young teenager – to walk through the doors of our white school each day, a place where she was always different – not because of who she was or anything she had done – but because of the color of her skin. How courageous she was to get up each day and move into this other, very white world! I could not have done it.

Was she was happy at school? Frightened? Lonely? Angry? I’ll never know…I never tried to find out.

So now, here we are.  And I am so very sorry for my ignorance and lack of empathy back then.  I’m embarrassed that my brothers and sisters have had to continuously fight for the life and rights that we whites have long taken for granted. I am thankful we are now joined in that fight.

The guilty pain I am feeling now when I think of Pearl actually comforts me – a stinging reminder that I am not that person I was back in the ’60s.  And I feel such gratitude that my grandchildren are being educated in environments where diversity thrives and the gifts of all are acknowledged and celebrated. Maya Angelou said, “In diversity, there is strength and beauty”. Their world will be much enriched. Their future will be both beautiful and strong,