I’d argue that there’s an important shade of difference between understanding and knowing. For example, there’s a difference between understanding that pushing a jagged, rock-like obstruction through one’s ureter and urethra might be painful and knowing the torture of actually passing a kidney stone.
I’ve been thinking of this distinction between understanding and knowing lately in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement that has left many white Americans confused, at the least, and downright apoplectic at the worst. A person may be able to understand the challenges faced by African-Americans, but can anyone who isn’t black truly know what it is like to be black in America? If not, how can so many white folks so knowingly denigrate the movement as radical, unnecessary, or un-American? I’d think that never having “walked in another’s shoes” renders one’s opinion on the people actually wearing them relatively meaningless.
Obviously, I have never walked, marched, or been tear gassed in a black person’s shoes, but I did once accompany my African-American friend Bob as a sweet-as-can-be real estate lady showed him properties around Louisville that we slowly came to realize were all located in so-called “black” neighborhoods. Bless her heart. Bob was single and making good money as an on-air television sportscaster for a local station and could have afforded to live in all but the most expensive of neighborhoods, yet he was clearly being steered away from them.
On another occasion after Bob had moved to work in Nashville, he and I were having dinner in some downtown hot spot. He was a good looking local celebrity with a six-figure salary. During the two hours we sat eating our meals, a steady procession of women stopped at our table. By the end of the evening, there was a literal stack of business cards with phone numbers waiting to be dialed. Years deep into marriage and raising children, I opined, “It must be great to be you.”
Without hesitation, he wisely replied, “Ty, I’d give anything to be you.”
I share that seemingly random anecdote because on two separate occasions, Bob telephoned me from whatever large city he was in living in at the time to inform me that he had met HER, the woman he planned to marry. He was finally going to have the life – my life – he so badly wanted. Sadly, however, on each occasion, he was forced to make a follow up call to tell me his relationship had been brought to an end after his white girlfriend’s parents learned he was African-American.
I also remember the many times I walked with Bob into any number of retail stores. Like me, he loved books and could easily while away an afternoon browsing in a bookstore. On those occasions, sales clerks seemed to greet us nearly at the door and all but follow us down the aisles in what I originally thought to be extraordinary customer service but that Bob quietly informed me actually to be surveillance. He was used to the “attention.”
Bob, a city kid from Rochester, New York, was no John Lewis or Louis Farrakhan, but like Mr. Lewis, he treated everyone with respect and expected it in return. He rarely complained about the systemic racism he experienced, and he graciously expressed appreciation for the occasional affirmative action from which he benefited. At times, he was accused by African-American acquaintances of not being “black enough,” but regardless of how hard he tried to live a colorblind existence himself, he was never white enough for full societal inclusion.
Bob passed away twelve years ago from colon cancer; however, over the nearly thirty years of our friendship, he became a member of both the family I was born into and the one I created with my wife. Occasionally, I hear folks complain about the Black Lives Matter movement. They typically make some kind of blanket declaration of the obvious, like “All Lives Matter,” as if to suggest they, as white people, are in similar need of societal validation. I find such glomming onto African-Americans’ justifiable claim to be petty and to miss the point entirely.
In no way am I suggesting that, by merely witnessing just a few of Bob’s day-to-day confrontations with profiling, prejudice, discrimination, and outright racism, I in any way know what it’s like to be a black person in America, but I do better understand its challenges, and I am supportive of the BLM movement. What I do know is that, if only in the way his presence in my families’ lives made all of us just a bit less prone to accept stereotypes and more open to forming relationships with people of all races, Bob’s Life Mattered.
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