On Friday night, Debbie and I were fortunate to have hosted three young adults for dinner, in what was a thoroughly enjoyable time. We laughed, we got serious, we shared points of view and found out that we had much in common. And yet, sadly, we also had almost nothing in common.
First the backstory.
Six years ago this Christmas, our oldest son asked whether he could invite a friend, and a friend of that friend, over for Christmas. When we drilled a little, it turned out that he had never met his friend, but had built a relationship on-line gaming over some period of time. Both guests were in the US Army, stationed at Fort Bragg, and were being deployed to Afghanistan within weeks. To be honest, I am not proud to say that my own personal reaction was to say “No”, that it would be an intrusion, but Deb intervened and we said “Yes”, they could join us for Xmas dinner and spend the night.
As with most holidays Chez Suter, we had invited several other friends over for the big feed, and for all of us, several things became apparent. These were young African-American men, who had joined the Army because it was a way, maybe the only way, for them to change their life vector, getting advanced training so that they could get decent paying jobs and achieve US middle-class. As we spoke, I realized that “middle-class” had become the American Dream and a stretch goal for large swaths of the country. But these are swaths with whom my friends and family around my dining room table have rarely had the chance to interact, and yet we had a wonderful time, quickly breaking through any imaginary barriers that existed.
In the years since, that young man spent a year in Afghanistan, risen in rank to Sergeant, and remained in touch. He is still in the Army, is close to getting his last aerospace certifications and will be getting out next May, trained, motivated and ready to begin his own pursuit of the American Dream.
He reached out last week, saying that he had 4 days of leave, and that he was going to be in Florida. I invited him over for dinner, thinking how great it would be to catch up and to hear of his time in the Army. He mentioned that he had two friends with him, and asked if they could come too. I said yes, but somewhat reluctantly, in that I wasn’t sure what we talk about. When he told me their names, I wanted to find out more about our guests, so I trolled their Facebook pages, and am ashamed to say, my reaction was a judgmental one, based only on my perception of what I was seeing. “His friend looks pretty Gangsta”, I said to Deb, as I looked at pictures with tight skull caps. I went from looking forward to seeing our friend again and catching up, to trepidation based entirely on my perception.
They showed up right on time, and I could not have been more wrong in the conclusions I had jumped to. They wanted the tour, asked for decorating advice, and even though we have downsized and think of our digs as pretty modest, the young woman said, “I have only ever seen homes like this in a magazine”. I realized that this was as unfamiliar to them as their backgrounds were to me and that they had as much trepidation as I did at spending an evening in our house. Barriers have two sides.
The three young people who walked through our front door were smart, engaging, funny and ambitious, as far from Gangsta as you can imagine. Yet as we talked through the night, it occurred to me that if I reacted as I had, how many others would as well? This seems especially true these days with racial tensions, in places like Ferguson and St. Louis, at a boiling point. Have we really progressed to where we are colour-blind or do we still pre-judge, using stereotypes that have no basis in reality?
During our conversation, they said something that stuck with me – “There are two kinds of people in this world: Do’ers and Don’ters. Don’t be a don’ter is our philosophy.”
These young people aspire to be Do’ers, and are taking a path, through the US Army, that my kids and their friends will never have to take. They face incredible headwinds, as they battle their socioeconomic origins, their race and sadly, our perceptions.
I suggest that for those of us fortunate enough to be able to be Do’ers because we won the lottery at birth, a more important question is, “Are you a Will’er or a Won’ter?”
Will you look at young people of colour with unbiased eyes?
Will you keep their resumes in the “To be Interviewed” pile or pass judgment on the basis of a name you don't recognize?
Will you try to break down barriers and challenge yourself to open your eyes, your ears, your minds and your front doors?
Will you give them a chance?
Or won’t you?
Don’t be a won’ter…
That's my .02!