There is tremendous power in the telling of our personal stories. Our stories can open minds, lead to deep understanding, soften hearts and help us develop compassion.
Two stories, both of which were shared in diversity sessions I facilitated more than ten years ago, are particularly powerful for me. One was told by a young African American man; the other, by a young European American woman. (Although the two narratives are told in first person, and do accurately represent the message, they are not verbatim accounts.)
The young man worked in management for a large Florida-based supermarket chain. During the afternoon of the first day of the workshop, he described a personal experience that had occurred at a gas station convenience store earlier that morning:
On my way to the training this morning, I stopped at a gas station convenience store to get a cup of coffee. After pouring my coffee, I got in line to pay for it. The guy in front of me was also black. All of a sudden, for no reason that I could see, this guy started going off on the cashier, who was white. I mean he was screaming at her, calling her names, everything. I think maybe the guy was mentally ill. He left, then I was next in line. When I walked up to the counter, that lady looked like she saw a ghost. I know what she was probably thinking. She was probably thinking, "Oh God. Here comes another one!" I didn't even know that guy. I didn't know him from Adam. Now, if I had been a white guy in line behind another white guy that had just gone off on her, she probably would've looked at me and said something like, "What was his problem?!" But as a black man, I have no individuality. That hurts like hell.
In my brief interaction with that young man, I experienced him as polite and soft spoken. Absolutely nothing about him was threatening.
The following was the story of the young woman, an employee of a large federal agency in Denton, Texas:
When I was growing up, people used the "N" word all the time; they talked about black people really negatively and had all the stereotypes. Then, once when I was in elementary school, we moved and for a little while right after the move, I had to go to a school that was mostly black. I'll never forget the classrooms in the school. They had no world globes. They didn't have the clocks on the wall that teachers use to teach kids how to tell time. The alphabets above the blackboard were hand made by the teachers. There wasn't an abacus in my classroom. We had no record players, no science table, no maps. We had no reading corner. Other than the old textbooks, there weren't even any books in the classroom. I remember, even as a kid, thinking there was no way these kids could compete against white kids because they had nothing. How could they compete?
While I was at the school, I made friends with a little black girl. One day after school, I walked her home. When we got to her house, I went in. I noticed the floors. They were beautiful, shiny hardwood. There was a very nice piano in one corner of the living room. The furniture, the curtains, everything looked perfect. My little friend's mother came out, and she was dressed so nice and her hair looked so pretty. She introduced herself, made iced tea for us and then played the piano for us.
After that, whenever I would hear one of my relatives, their friends or one of my friends use the "N" word and say racist things about black people, I didn't say anything, but I would always think to myself, "Wow. They're saying those things, and they believe those things because they've never seen what I saw. They don't know what I know. They just don't understand." I'm so glad that I had that experience. Going to that school for a few months and especially that one afternoon at my friend's house saved me. They saved me from a closed mind that would have really limited my thinking, my understanding, and my whole life. I'm so thankful for that.
Those are the kinds of stories that can deeply touch our hearts and in so doing, help all of us understand each other on a much more profound level than we almost ever do. If we could learn how to both share our own stories and with neither judgment nor defensiveness, listen to those of others, we would grow in wisdom at a rate I don't think we even believe is possible.
Lauren Joichin Nile
Lauren Joichin Nile is an author, keynote speaker, trainer and licensed attorney who specializes in assisting organizations in increasing their emotional intelligence, compassion, and productivity. The goal of her work with organizations is to help create environments in which understanding and kindness are valued and as a result, every person is equally welcomed and uniformly appreciated irrespective of all demographic differences. The goal of Lauren's speaking and training in the greater society, is to help the human species grow in both wisdom and compassion.
"Race: My Story & Humanity's Bottom Line"
By Lauren Joichin Nile