The Reality of the Experience of Racism (or is it the Experience of the Reality of Racism?)

The Reality of the Experience of Racism (or is it the Experience of the Reality of Racism?)

Every leader confronts situations in which reality seems to become ambiguous, even completely unhinged from what we are accustomed to believe is reality.

Most of these aren’t of the supernatural sort. Indeed, they are often among the most natural of occurrences. All that is required is for there to be at least two people involved in or witnessing a given event. Especially if those two or more individuals come from somewhat different backgrounds, or witness the event from different locations, or participate in different roles, reality becomes a contested thing.

Was the front-line staff person rude to the customer? Or is the customer trying to cause trouble?

Was the council member’s colloquialism a slur, or merely slang?

What we believe depends on who we are in the story.

I remember (with embarrassment) one of my rare descents into calling a classmate names in high school. These descents were rare, I’ll note, both because that wasn’t the way I was raised, and because I was the original 97 pound weakling and understood the risks of an injudicious insult. But on this occasion, the target of my jab (which was meant to be humorous more than biting) was someone of relatively modest stature and, like me, had suffered for years from jokes made about his last name.

Mine, of course, is Paine. His was Dillworth.

All I did was simply to repeat a play on that name (which, because we were teen boys, involved something sexual). I’d heard others call him that numerous times. I figured it was just a good joke, and he deserved it, because he’d messed up on something we were working on.

Later that day, he came back to talk to me. In a courageous bit of candor (because teen boys, you know, aren’t supposed to acknowledge most feelings), he told me that he really was offended (hurt, actually) by what I had said.  He told me he was used to that sort of thing from others, but I was supposed to be different than those others . . . and here, in that one moment, I had betrayed his sense of who I was.

How was I to know?

I’m not sure I could have known. But I’ll credit myself a little for my response, because I apologized (awkwardly; I was confused by the turn of events). I also took time, that evening, to consider how different my experience of events and my friend’s experience of events had been.

Should he have been more offended by the unkind jib by me than by others? Was it fair to hold me to a higher standard? Was it even possible to believe that my joke actually offended and hurt him?

I realized then, and have had similar situations confirm the realization in the decades since, that the answer is simply: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter whether I think he “should have been offended.” It doesn’t matter whether he was being “fair.” In an important sense, it may not even matter whether he was telling the truth.

What matters is that, in that moment, we identified very different experiences of reality. And, if I was to be wise, I had to allow that his experience of reality was, at a minimum, his experience . . . and therefore real.

Racism and, more generally, prejudicial attitudes toward certain groups invite us into this peculiar world of contested reality, of experiences that differ in dramatic ways. What is thought to be an innocent joke, even an innocent or perhaps obligatory gesture, can be received very differently than consciously intended. The experience of being treated badly is something that belongs to the one who perceives himself/herself to have been wronged. The one who committed what was received as an offense may have meant to be offensive, or may have meant nothing of the kind. In either case, it can be that the reality of the experience, for the aggrieved party, is that he/she was treated unkindly, unjustly or otherwise in a prejudiced manner.

These moments of contested reality were the focus of F.B.I. Director James B. Comey’s rather startling remarks last week about law enforcement officers, race and perception. To some, the remarks were startling because we don’t want to believe that there is or can be a race problem in our society, and certainly not among our men and women in blue. To others, they were startling because it was the white male head of the F.B.I. who was making them.

Director Comey’s assessment of the “race problem” is rather sophisticated, and very challenging.

And very timely.

Because whether or not an officer consciously looks at a citizen (or a citizen consciously looks at an officer) through a racial lens, the experience of these very real and very important interactions between law enforcement officers and citizens can be very different depending on the eyes through which one is looking. That difference, if unrecognized or discredited, lights the fuse of conflict that can and has transcended the individual encounter. It can and has reminded us, sadly, that there remain deep divisions in our society along racial and ethnic (among others) lines.

That, my friends, is the reality. And it’s time we all had the courage to acknowledge it.