Still dreaming

Years ago, my mom told me a story.  It was the late 1950s, and she and her church teen group were taking a trip cross-country to attend a youth conference.   When they got to a certain state (I can’t recall which one), and stopped at the hotel, all the kids couldn’t wait to jump into the pool.

My mom recalls that the only black guy in her youth group was sitting off to the side, watching everyone else splash and play in the pool.  “Don’t you want to swim, too?”  she asked him.

“I’m not allowed to,” he said quietly.

For my mom, this was her first experience with segregation. She was a Southern California girl, and while racism was found there too, she had never before seen institutionalized segregation of this kind.  It made a big impression on her, and when I first heard that story, it left a mark on me as well.

I think it’s easy for me to underestimate the legacy of Dr. King.  I was a child of the 1970s, so any experience of Whites Only drinking fountains and Jim Crow is what I read from books or see on TV.  But I hear a story like that, and I realize that I should never take for granted what Dr. King did.

And it makes me reflect on the fact that, as a white woman, I will probably never really “get” the pain of racism.  If I go to a store and people give me terrible service or ignore me, I never — never — stop and wonder if it’s because of my race.  That is a luxury — that’s not quite the right word, but close enough — that I only get because I happen to be white.  To truly understand racism, it means listening to the stories of people who experience it.  It means listening with humility and not interrupting or glossing it over.

When my boys are old enough to really learn about Dr. King’s legacy, and to learn about Jim Crow and segregation and Rosa Parks, I hope they will be shocked.  I hope they will think it’s totally crazy and absurd that black people ever had to sit in the back of a bus.  But I also want to teach them that we haven’t entirely achieved Dr. King’s dream yet.  And I want to teach them — hopefully by example, as well as by word — that one way to reach that dream is by having humility in the face of other people’s experiences, even — or especially if — they are different from our own.

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