I’m taking a moment to switch direction from my Cancer blog to look at Martin Luther King Jr. and what it means to a simple white guy like me.
Frankly, I am a little uncomfortable writing about race, not wanting to offend, but it’s worth the challenge to articulate how Martin Luther King Jr. has changed things for me.
I’m a Northern-Midwest guy, from Milwaukee; this part of the country is not overflowing with people of color; it’s very white. I attended a Catholic grade school and out of about 500 kids, we had zero people of color, by that I mean no Asians, Latinos, or African Americans. Nada. The city is divided into pockets, where African Americans inhabit one section of the city, Latinos another, and whites the suburbs. Different races don’t really live amongst each other and it’s striking how polarized the city remains even today when we return for visits.
I began to think about race in high school, when differences set apart pacts of people; race was noticed. At the boys prep school I attended, different races rarely mixed, but some notable brave exceptions (people of color) seemed to befriend all types of people. Those folks seemed to melt the ice and embodied the fundamental precept of the Civil Right Movement, which was to challenge the status quo – in this case commiserating with our own races.
While aware of our differences, it was more important to talk about studies, sports, or dating rather than race. And it worked, and it was natural.
By no means is that a seminal or unique experience, but it was an actionable extension of King’s vision of harmony, peace, and unity among different people.
Since those days, I have traveled the world and experienced many cultures and think of the famous Mark Twain quote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
When I traveled frequently out of the country on business, I tried to learn as much about a region while I was there by visiting cultural sites, buying products in markets, venturing into restaurants well outside the guidebooks, and simply walking through the hearts of cities.
Learning more about different perspectives is now a priority.
I look at my son and see how his upbringing regarding race and cultures differs so much than mine. As a father, I have tried to expose him to as many cultures as possible. Our family has hosted friends from foreign countries and before those visits, mandated to our son that he ask them some questions to learn more about their culture. Our neighborhood is a cross-section or different races and cultures with people who have lived in places all over the map. And, while he is aware of differences, they are without the stigma or sensitivity that they carried in my childhood.
This is his new status quo.
These experiences I hope will shape my son into a more sensitive man and give him an awareness that our differences are not divisive, but just the opposite. And I hope this change is what Dr. King dreamt of many years ago.