This is not an indictment of my parents – they embraced the idea of equality with passion. They are, after all, East Coast liberals who worked in education. But the reality is that I grew up almost entirely isolated from people of color. There was one African American girl in my elementary school for two years – I’m pretty sure that her family moved out by third grade. Her color was never acknowledged by anyone there – a great deal was made of my Jewishness around Channukah (where I had to tell the story of the Macabees every year to my classmates), but we all walked around the idea of her blackness. Outside of our hometown (pop 26,000, less than 0.75% African American), my family rarely went places where white was the minority, aside from Chinatown – in Boston, we went to Harvard Square, Fanuel Hall, the museums, the North End, or theaters – all places where white was the primary color.
I learned African-American history as if it was a foreign culture. Reverend Martin Luther King Junior’s story was taught alongside Ghandi’s, and Harriet Tubman was a hero from storybooks. I wrote a report comparing the philosophies of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington with the same remove as my papers on the Ming Dynasty and the Kalahari San. I learned nothing of James Baldwin or Malcom X.
The black men I saw were in movies and on TV. When I summon an image of blackness from my youth, I first get Willie Horton, then the Huxtables, then a nameless, faceless mob of the homeless, the drug addict, the thief and the thug. Our house was broken into when I was 7, and I immediately envisioned the burglar as a black man, even though I had never seen a black man on my street. When I visited my grandparents in Florida, they rolled up the windows and clicked the automatic locks any time we rolled through a neighborhood with black faces.
The idea of brown skin was to be celebrated. The reality of it was not only absent, but avoided.
Fear is essential to our evolution as animals. It keeps us alive when we don’t understand our surroundings. The great unknown holds opportunities, but also danger. Fear itself cannot be removed from a healthy human. But the thing we often forget, when justifying our fears, is that we are wired to allow familiarity to ease those fears. This is a biological imperative – if early humans had not learned to befriend strangers, explore widening circles of territory, and domesticate strange animals, we would have never climbed the ladder. Fear of the unknown is natural, and naturally disappears through knowing.
My fears began to diminish in September of 1987, when, during my high school orientation weekend, my first pool of friends included a number of African American teenage boys, all as nervous as I was about starting high school. It lessened further as I was taken up by an African American theater mentor. But I was still in a “safe space” – a boarding school on a hill, where everyone was in pursuit of the same academic growth. I was still scared in cities, around strangers.
My fear diminished more when I moved to NYC, and even more when I became a mentor, myself, to teenage boys and girls of color in the Bronx and Manhattan, opening their minds to the possibilities of theater. Eventually, as I became the white minority in many collaborations, I had no time for fear, no basis for it, no reason for it.
And my fears were utterly undone when I became an urban parent. Because you know what really kills a sense of distance between people? Changing your babies together on a playground. Talking about your 5-year olds’ obsessions with their penises, watching them fight over toys at 6, teach each other dance moves at 7, laugh so hard they snort their apple juice at 8. Knowing that my white boy and my friend’s black boy are as close to being the same kid in different bodies as is possible.
Darren Wilson saw “a demon” and Timothy Loehmann saw a 20-year old armed man. Michael Brown and Tamir Rice never stood a chance, when confronted by frightened men with badges and guns. Because fear? Fear works faster than the snap of a finger. It pumps your adrenalin, blocks your rational mind, jacks your body and just slams your mind with an unstoppable urge – survival at all costs. The only training the police have to deal with their fears is to kill what scares them. And that is why so many black boys and men are dying.
Our white police come from a culture that separated them at birth from people of color. A culture 20 generations in the making. A culture that, if not remade, will destroy itself. Because cultures of fear reinforce themselves, become a viscous cycle.
I know that not everyone is as lucky as I am – I have a career that brings me together with an endless array of fantastic people from all demographics.
But everyone can work at erasing the lines that keep us apart. We can raise our babies together, sit on stoops together, walk in the woods together, go to the stores together, eat, drink, fall in love, argue, go to the movies, make music, clean our parks, balance our books, cook, dance, laugh, live together.
Once we stop being afraid of each other, once that artificial difference created by the slaveowners 400 years ago has finally been erased, I believe we will see an end to this cycle.
Until then – fight your fear. Fight it with every weapon you can. Fight to become the human you truly can be. It just might save an innocent child’s life.