As a small town young man in high school, I was selected to attend a prestigious 5-week program in the Arts in my home state of Pennsylvania. The program was made up of young artists in various genres (kind of like the movie Fame) from around the state, and I was in the Theater Program. The last thing I expected to learn during that time was a lesson about racism – from a fellow student.
With professionals training us, from a Broadway actress to a university theater director, we were learning from the best. Our acting program was intensive, and the sessions themselves were physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging.
While I loved the improv classes (learning to throw lobs to one another, like Who’s Line Is It Anyway), some of the other exercises we did were a little, say, stretching for me.
If you’re going to go deep into the world of acting, the training is designed to help you develop a wide range of emotional skills – affective skills – that will enable you to act more convincingly in a variety of roles.
My experience during one exercise, in particular, has come back to me in force in these troubling days of racial tension – and it feels like yesterday that it happened.
A Small Town Boy & His Friends
Before I share that experience, let me give a bit of background. In my small town of Middletown, PA (best known for the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster of 1979), I had friends who were white, friends who were black, and friends who were Hispanic, Indian, and Asian (from various ethnic groups).
But the predominant ethnic groups in my small town were caucasian and African-American. While I heard racial jokes on a daily basis, no bias toward someone from another ethnic background seemed to settle in me. For this, I am truly thankful.
By the grace of God, I didn’t see my friends through a distinctly racial lens. I hung out with them at school, played sports with them, and was in marching band with them. I wasn’t blind; I knew we looked different and had different family experiences, but it didn’t alter my view that these were simply my friends.
I’m sure I saw dividing lines somewhere, but I didn’t feel those lines becoming a part of me. (I would come to see later I was not as blameless as I thought when it came to the hidden roots that further racism).
Who did I hang out with after school and on weekends? To that I had a different answer. Mainly my white friends. Why? Because we lived in the same area. We were German, Italian, Irish, and Polish – but we were all white.
(One enlightening evening I was in a different part of town for a meeting, and stopped by to visit a black friend in his neighborhood – where it dawned on me that many of my African-American friends also lived. It was then I discovered that not everyone was living in the same part of town).
Fast forward to the summer before my senior year of high school, and the Arts program I was enjoying with my new, artsy peer group.
An Exercise In Understanding
One morning, after our opening prep exercises, our instructor announced we were going to learn about comfort and empathy – essential acting qualities mature in the serious thespian.
We were each assigned a partner, and I was assigned to work with a good friend (and an excellent actress) who was an African-American girl.
(Before I go on, let me say this. This was in the early 80s in small town America. I can’t tell you how innocent it all was; this was back in the day when our eyes and ears weren’t filled with so much male/female relational baggage coming at us online (it didn’t exist), on TV (there were rules), or in the movies (back when R was the same thing as PG today).)
Our theater group was a group of friends, and we were going to work together to understand one other.
But the exercise had a twist – we were going to attempt to understand the life and the story of our partner using no words whatsoever.
The Understanding Exercise: Part 1
For the first part of the exercise, we sat down on the floor, facing one another, a foot or so apart.
The instructor asked us to look into the eyes of the other person, and for 2 entire minutes (or so I recall), to seek to understand who they were by simply looking into their eyes.
It was far more of an emotional experience than I thought it would be. At one point as I recall, both our eyes welled up for a moment, and the invisible barrier of the exercise fell away as we both smiled knowingly at how amusing this whole thing was.
The Understanding Exercise: Part 2
Then, we were asked to sit, side by side, with our torsos in line but our legs pointing the opposite direction (kind of like those seats in an “S” shape where the two people can look at one another while sitting).
We were told to express empathy and comfort authentically to one another, again, without words.
Here was the second twist: we had to do it through a simple embrace.
And that’s when I learned something about racism.
We hugged, like a brother and sister, for about a minute.
Then my friend began to softly, gently cry. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stayed in the embrace.
Then, as if by instinct, I began to cry with her – in an almost unspoken solidarity with whatever she was feeling.
To this day, I don’t know the reason for the emotion we shared in that moment.
My friend may have had some deep pain that a simple hug was unlocking, and I could feel it go right through me. She may have been crying because she’d never been hugged by a white person, let alone a male. She may have been crying because she just needed a hug that day.
We finished, and smiled at one another. There was no embarrassment; I felt like I had a new sister.
All I know is this – I had a revelation that shook me to the core.
Feeling Another’s Story In Your Bones
The revelation? That her life was not the same as mine when she went home.
Her story in America was rooted in a different past and present. Centuries of slavery, in the grand scope of history, had only recently passed, and my guess was her grandmother and great grandmother must have experienced, first-hand, that horrific time in American history.
My story as a young, white male in America was one of complete freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it, wherever I wanted to do it.
I imagined what it must be like to not have that complete, utter freedom, or for others to think about you in ways that would limit your freedom.
I became aware, for the first time, that we may not all be experiencing the same America every day.
I began, from that moment on, to feel the difference in the stories that people bring to the table, and how they see the world we’re both living in.
As we say in my church stream, the Vineyard, “We need to let others be the experts on their own pain.” I began to listen for the joy and pain in other’s stories, and began to ask questions to find out how they saw the world.
Now as I look back, I realize that I had received a gift from the Spirit of God that day.
When Stories Collide
I literally felt another story colliding into mine, changing my own forever, and giving me eyes to see that others don’t enjoy the same “do whatever, whenever, wherever” freedoms that I enjoyed, nor were we starting at the same place when it came to opportunity and how others saw us.
So much changed for me after that exercise. I could no longer see a documentary about slavery, or see a graphic image highlighting equal rights, without coming to tears (in some cases, uncontrollable sobs; I was being given the gift of repentance – feeling the weight of my ancestors sins and mourning over such inhumanity – before I even knew what “godly sorrow” was).
I can honestly say that I’ve never felt a stitch of hatred or racism toward another person based on their background or skin color.
But there was something else that was uncovered that day.
The Sin Of Willful Ignorance
It was the sin of willful ignorance. I hadn’t tried to get behind the stories of my friends from other ethnic backgrounds before.
I assumed all was well, and was too self-absorbed to think I might have something to learn from their experience.
After that Arts program, I couldn’t help but ask questions and enter the stories of my African-American friends, and my friends from other ethnic backgrounds.
It was a new day for me; a dark spot on my spirit was revealed, and dismissed by the Grace of God.
Post-college, I went on to work with juvenile offenders (a ‘last-stop-shop’ before prison) from a range of ethnic backgrounds. My main students were African-American, Hispanic, and white. And there, as I sat with my students and their families in the harsh conditions of their daily lives, I watched different stories – different experiences of the land-of-the-free and the home-of-the-brave – unfold before my eyes.
A Silent Dream
Today I realized that, deep inside, I’ve been silently dreaming about something my entire life.
I’ve been dreaming that everyone could have an experience like the one I had that day in the summer before my Senior year.
I’ve dreamed that everyone could experience a moment of deep understanding and comfort toward another, and a moment of being understood and comforted by another, who is from another ethnic background.
For me, it changed my story and how I actively pursue hearing the stories of everyone I’ve met since.
My friends today are from many backgrounds, and it is one of the greatest privileges of my life to be welcomed to see the world, if only through listening, empathy, and imagination, through their eyes.
That moment was a quiet victory in the life of a small town boy, forever changing the perspective of the man I’ve become today.
One simple exercise held an unexpected gift – a gift for which I will forever be grateful.
3 Ways You Can Seek Understanding Today:
While not everyone can experience what I did through that exercise, there are a few steps I believe one can take to grow in empathy and understanding of those who are different than us.
- Intentionally make a friend of someone who is from a different ethnic background than you. Invest effort, time, and meals asking them questions about their story, and listening, really listening to what brings them joy and pain. It’s not rocket science, and it’s worth the first awkward moments to ask questions and to listen with your heart.
- Read & watch stories and movies that invite you into the story of another. We avoid media that is not directly about us. Consider people in your life from other ethnic backgrounds as us, and actively become a student of their past in America, or in your country. It will give you some perspective on where both you and they have come from.
- De-politicize race, and seek understanding. Read articles by people with whom you disagree, even if you do so deeply, and do so with a willingness to learn from what they have to say. That doesn’t mean everyone is always right (despite what the culture tells us), but it works the muscles of our listening ear and empathizing heart – and will get us beyond the entrenched dividing lines we draw.
Written for my children, nieces, and nephews, and in honor of those who died and were impacted by the events in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. #Charlottesville #BetterTogether