I was born and raised in a small mid-western town in Nebraska settled primarily by people of German and Danish descent. We had our customs, traditions, and world view. What we didn’t have very much of was people of color. So as a child my understanding of diversity was shaped by family and people in authority in my life. I had relatives who referred to African-Americans as “the darkies”. (I understand now that their understanding was shaped by the same culture I grew up in). My only experience with people of color was gained by watching the nightly news and seeing images of civil rights marches that were met by billy clubs, fire hoses, and attack dogs.
The first actual personal experience I can remember with someone of African-American decent happened as a child in a park in our “big city” of Omaha where my parents were visiting friends. I had been playing hard, was thirsty and ran to a drinking fountain. A young girl with black skin beat me to the fountain. I stepped back and remembered what I had been told…”the darkies are dirty”. I passed on the drink.
Fast forward a decade, I am being dropped off at my first day of college where I am on a track scholarship. The school was attempting to bridge the racial divide by rooming athletes of different color in the dorms. I was assigned a room with Joe Wharton the star guard of the basketball team, an upper classman from Chicago who happened to be African-American. We hit it off immediately and became more than roommates…we became friends. He introduced me to music I still listen to today. He walked with me through a break-up with a gal I had set my heart on. He included me in parties and gatherings where I was the only white kid in the bunch. My experiences did not align with what I had been taught or had seen modeled.
Perhaps Mr. Rogers was right when he said: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story”. Maybe now, as much as anytime, is the time to step back from the rhetoric and accusations, cease in the attempts to out shout each other and listen. Just listen to someone else’s story.