I foolishly thought racial attitudes were getting better, that this next generation would not have the same experience as those who came before.

An image of a person's reflection in a subway window.
Credit: Jareed, Flickc (CC BY 2.0)

He was beautiful to me. We exchanged knowing glances and I thought “he could be my son.” Then a subway authority officer stopped him, the twinkle left his eye, and my heart sank.  

I observed from a distance. I watched the youth slowly deflate as the subway authority reciprocally buffed up (clutching his club). I watched the boy carefully and respectfully go through all the steps we teach young black boys to get home safe. I felt fearful, hopeless and angry.   I don’t know the specifics of this particular situation, I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I could feel the tone of the exchange because I have felt it before in teachers who thought I was overly ambitious “for my people,” and colleagues who resented that I was in “their jobs.” I know the feeling well, my parents know the feeling, my grandparents knew the feeling (too well). I foolishly thought maybe things were getting better, that this next generation would not know the feeling.   It’s hard to talk about these feelings. We know that oppression is bad: it crushes spirits, destroys self-esteem, violates basic human rights, and encourages an unhealthy distribution of power. To fight this oppression we change our words, responses, and structures, but can those actions alone change our hearts and feelings?

That subway authority officer technically did nothing wrong, yet his feelings trumped his “diplomatic” actions. Perhaps the only heart that we can transform is our own. Maybe this was the prayer of the psalmist “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

I wonder what would be different if I could go back to that day with a bit more of Christ’s spirit in my heart. I am certain that I would have felt the same affection towards the young man, “he could be my son,” but perhaps I would have found the courage to talk to him and ask him if he was ok (putting love into action). My feelings of bitterness and anger might still remain, but perhaps they would have been re-directed.

I was not really angry at the subway authority, I was angry at the racist ideologies that have trained people to fear black men. I was bitter that my anger and fear stopped me from seeing that officer as my neighbor. Could he be beautiful to me as well? Possibly, one day…

-Alydia Smith is Program Coordinator, Worship, Music and Spirituality; The United Church of Canada.

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