a whole different world: stereotypes and not judging

I’ve recently had the opportunity to facilitate small groups at a local college and meet some people I probably wouldn’t have ever met otherwise. Because I am working on my degree in counseling, I have been vested with the authority of “counselor” there and, even for just 20 minutes, I am entrusted with people’s lives and stories. They have shared with me some experiences that feel worlds apart from my own.

One such time was last week, meeting with a young black man who lives in what is known as a dangerous neighborhood near where I facilitate the groups. We are so different. Yet he somehow felt comfortable sharing his experiences and some of his feelings with me. That fact alone amazed me. I was worried he wouldn’t trust me or would think it ridiculous that his program director suggested he talk to me. But he opened up right away. Given what he shared with me, it would be so easy for a person from my background to judge him. I did my best to just hear him in his story and see him as the person he is.

While we spoke, I had to focus so hard to understand him, as our dialects are so different. Sometimes it felt like he was speaking a language I only partially knew. I wonder if he ever feels the same about me, or if he had to learn “my” language at some point? He also used vocabulary I wasn’t altogether comfortable with, including the “n” word. I wonder what that means to him?

He spoke of baby mamas and the kids he already has and another on the way, different women for these kids, spoke of wanting more kids but especially a boy. Spoke of his intense desire to stay in these kids’ lives, of his efforts to continue to communicate with the mom. I thought of how easy it would be for me to judge him for impregnating all these girls and not staying with them. Of what this looks like to me, an outsider. But if I’m really trying to understand him, I can’t at the same time be judging him. If I’m really trying to hear him, I can’t have my mind be distracted by thoughts of criticism, of how he should change, of how he should become more like me and hold my values. I don’t know how the moms feel, how their families feel, how the kids feel. I don’t really understand why this is a source of pride for him, to have these kids scattered about, because that’s not really part of my culture. But he wants these kids. He wants to be in their lives. That’s something worth encouraging.

He spoke of a “package” he had to pick up after this. I wondered if that was simple code for drugs. I wondered if it was naive to not simply assume that. I am naive. I’ve never used drugs; I don’t think I’ve even seen drugs of the illegal variety [well, illegal except in Colorado]. (yep, all street cred I ever possibly had just flew out the window). But that’s my background. I don’t know for sure what the package was. If it was drugs, I don’t know if he’s a user or just a dealer. I am aware, however, of how much more lucrative it can be for people to make a living selling drugs like that than working a “normal” job. I’m also aware of racism and school-to-prison pipelines and how crack (a “black person” drug) is punished so much more harshly than the more expensive cocaine (a “white person” drug). I’m aware of the generational effect of poverty, of assuming that this is what life has in store for you because it’s what is in store for everyone around you, of the difficulties of getting ahead for people in such poor urban areas. I wonder, regardless of what’s in the package, if he’s doing the best he can, or at least what he knows to do, given his circumstances.

And through it all, I was aware of being in the presence of just another person. This young man, speaking in ways I had a hard time understanding and about topics so unfamiliar to me: he’s just a person. I felt warmly toward him, knowing that at our roots we share in basic human emotions like fear, anger, sadness, happiness. That we want to love and be loved. That we have dreams of what we might do in our future, which might be realistic and might not be. I was grateful for our 20-minute exchange, for getting a glimpse into a life so very different from mine.

And at the same time, I’m all too aware that it’s only 20 minutes, that it’s far easier to try and assume the best about someone you don’t know very well, than to try and engage in dialogue and really understand each other. My glimpse was just that: a brief and momentary glimpse. Is there a way that our cultures might collide again?

It’s become clear recently that all too many times, when these cultures collide, violence and death can result. We do not know the other. We do not understand the other. We mistrust the other. Apparently, we sometimes think that it is best if the other were to die. Maybe we feel unsafe, maybe we can find a way to “justify” it, but the end result is the same: the Other is dead and we remain. Our feelings of righteousness and and wanting to feel safe have won out over the other person’s right to their own safety and life.

This man does not deserve to die because someone else feels unsafe around him. He has feelings. Kids. A girlfriend. People who care about him. He has a right to life as much as you or I. 

So short, our time together, yet I still think about him. I wonder what it will take for us to accept that others have different ways of life, for us to listen in non-judgment for just a minute, or step over the boundary that separates us and actually engage with someone so different from us. I confess, without this opportunity, I probably wouldn’t have. But I’m grateful I had the chance to meet him. And I pray for myself, and all of us, that we have chances to encounter other worlds and people who are different from us, and take a moment to try and see.