Success and tenacity go hand in hand.
Dave Cunningham / November 6, 2008
We elected Barack Obama, an African American. Like others, I am celebrating this victory over racism. Each of us has our stories and experiences that brought us to Tuesday’s historic American decision. I, too, have been introspective about my experiences.
Growing up in the second half of the 20th century, I was raised to respect all people. I watched the civil rights struggle of the 60’s & 70’s from a distance. Although I agreed that change was necessary, I didn’t see myself as a part of the problem.
Later, as a father to three young children, I taught them what I thought, regarding racial prejudice and bigotry. What I taught them was that racial prejudice and bigotry were wrong and played no part in our lives. Eventually, I was pleased when they would bring home friends of another race, seemingly, without regard to their outer differences. I thought I was doing okay on this issue. I wasn’t part of the problem.
Years later, I remember that, as a young corporate sales manager, I had talked at home about performance issues I was experiencing with an employee who reported to me. Over months, the difficulties grew and resulted in accusations of racial discrimination on my part. Although they were eventually proven to be unfounded, my true vindication came from my then young 12-year old daughter who said to me, “In all the times you have talked about your employee and all the trouble you were having, you never mentioned that the person was black.”
[The foregoing quote was paraphrased to avoid names and references that might be harmful to others]
The eventual judgment of my innocence by the ACLU pales in comparison to my daughter’s words. Once again, I was assured, I was not part of the problem.
Today, I called Tom, my old friend from those days, an African American with whom I had worked as his subordinate and eventually as management peers. We talked about the election and about its meaning to us and to the country.
After we talked, I recalled an incident at a National Sales Meeting long ago. Fred, an African American co-worker, was mistaken for the porter in the men’s room, by a white employee. Fred acted out in an old fashioned minstrel-show-type “shuck-and-jive”, to save face for both of them. I thought it was funny. As I recounted the story to my friend, Tom, back in our suite, he explained to me why it was not funny and further, that I owed an apology to Fred, which I humbly and respectfully offered and which he graciously accepted.
I was not aware of my own racial insensitivity. My friend Tom stepped up to help me learn. I feel moved as I write this. I am ashamed of my behavior and blessed to have had a friend who was willing to call me on it. For the first time, I saw that I was part of the problem.
My point is that often, racism is subtle. It is not intentional or malicious. It can be passive, seemingly benign. For this reason, it is so important that we take advantage of opportunities to talk about our differences.
In his March 18, 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech, then candidate Obama said:
“This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years . . . But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
It has been said that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. As we celebrate our national decision, let’s endeavor to be, mindfully, part of the solution.
Link to text of Obama’s More Perfect Union speech: