My aunt led my sister and me across the street to avoid passing close to a Black man walking towards us on a sidewalk during the late 1950s in a quiet neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia. Even as a kid, I understood that I was doing something wrong and was embarrassed. The events of these past weeks reminded me of our uncivil maneuver of so long ago.
In the Bahá’í Faith the writings describe the act of offending someone as putting dust on the heart of the offended, but also such an action puts dust on the offender’s heart. I can still see that Black man with his shoulders hunched, arms slack, walking with a heart freighted with the dusting of many such an insult as ours. I remember my small heart feeling unexpectedly sad.
I was raised out West by a dad who didn't make racial slurs or acted differently around people of color, but some of his sisters and brothers, who remained in the South, were indoctrinated with a deep prejudice against those of color. Numerous studies show that children as young as three to five-years of age can begin acquiring racist attitudes, their spiritual judgement obscured. But attitudes of racism can be both learned and unlearned.
After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, my aunt’s attitudes shifted slightly as she came to know her now Black mailman and her local store clerks of color. This aunt passed away many years ago, but unfortunately she would recognize the racism we still see today. Only the protests would look different with the participants now having a greater diversity of skin colors. This, at least, is a singular point of worthy change.
The issue might seem less relevant here where I live, but in a Walla Walla restaurant just the other day, I overheard an older white man laugh as he mocked the Black Lives Matter protests for honoring a Black man who (allegedly) tried to pass a counterfeit bill, a minor offense. Even as this white man sat in a restaurant booth, his thoughts rose and sidestepped with his spoken words, slipping around the real issue of Black Americans suffering from systematic economic deprivation and unequal justice. This white man crossed the line of legitimizing the death of a human being for a minor crime – which even if George Floyd committed, he should be alive right now to have his day in court, this being the rule of the land in this precious democracy of ours.
The smile of the restaurant patron, who rose and crossed lines, proud of his comments, conveyed not a light heart, but of a habit – of a lifetime of learning ways to be racist in America. Like my aunt, he has the capacity to eliminate his learned animosities, dust off his heart, and empty its rooms of prejudice. May he succeed. Godspeed.