Saturday, July 27, 2013

Parking Lots and Race Relations

I parked my car out front of our office building Tuesday morning and grabbed my stuff.  As I headed toward the front door, I noticed a young gentleman walking through the parking lot.  I didn’t think much of it - there are often people either headed into work or walking down the street at that time of morning.

The young man and I were walking in opposite directions.  He had his head down and hands in his pockets. I had my phone in hand, checking email as I walked toward the front door.  But as we walked toward each other, I saw him move towards the right, so as not to walk too close to me.  I gave him a quick smile and said, “Good morning” as I passed him.

He replied, “Good morning, Ma’am,” which he immediately followed with, “I’m just looking for my library card.”

This encounter immediately struck me, and I haven’t been able to put my feelings about it down on paper until nearly a week later.  I haven’t known (and still don’t know) the best way to express everything I want to say about it in one little blog post.  The encounter was a seemingly innocent and regular exchange between two strangers passing in the street.  But the importance in the encounter lies in the fact that it showcases the often unrecognized subtleties of racial dynamics in our country.

In light of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I have (as I’m sure most people have) witnessed, and sometimes engaged in, recent conversations on race, race relations and racial profiling.  Much of what I think has been missing from these conversations in the past was the assumption that only really racist people and outright discrimination are problems, while we often ignore the day-to-day differences in power, privilege and experience.

The fact that a young black man felt obligated to explain himself and what he was doing walking through a parking lot at 8:50am is an absurd reality of an unsafe and wholly unfair system of racial inequality.  The fact is, as a white woman, I have never once felt the need to distance myself from someone on the street because they might be afraid of me.  And I have certainly never explained why my hands were in my pockets because someone might think I have a weapon.  This difference is not okay.  The fact of the matter is that I could walk down the street at any time of day or night and never be suspected of anything, regardless of where my hands are or what I’m wearing.  Yet many people don’t have this advantage.  This young man was so attuned to the unspoken power differences between us, that he immediately diffused the situation – the situation merely being his presence.  Don’t be threatening.  Don’t make eye contact.  Speak only when spoken to.  Explain yourself.

In the field of teen pregnancy prevention, it is our goal to support and empower youth to make healthy choices for themselves.  But in doing so, we can’t ignore the larger social equality issues at play.  Our lived experiences are different and we need to first recognize that these differences exist before we can address them.  Racial privilege and disadvantage are real and should be talked about.  But we also need to recognize that our youth are not immune - and may even be more vulnerable - to the stark reality of social injustice.  It is my hope that we can address these issues by starting real conversations and openly discussing the role race plays in our experiences, opportunities and daily lives.

By Lesley Craft, Research and Evaluation Graduate Assistant, SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

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