A couple of weeks ago a colleague and I were walking along the crowded waterfront in San Francisco, and coming toward us was a trio of young African-American men who were joking and playing. When we passed I greeted them, and just as the last of them walked by I heard him say, “Thanks for seeing us.”
It took a minute for that to register. My companion said, “Did you hear what I heard?” and it took me a moment before I could respond with, “Yes.” My heart was breaking.
How could it be that I would be thanked for merely seeing someone? It took all of my self-control not to run back to those young men, gather them in my arms and apologize for every person who had ever overlooked them, averted their eyes, or turned away. What must it be like to move through a world that refuses to meet one’s eyes, that refuses to acknowledge one’s very existence?
I could make an analysis and write this piece solely about the kind of pervasive racism which creates a very specific and limiting box in which African-American men are expected to live (and why they might feel invisible). Yet as I scan the world with those young men still in my heart, I notice that many kinds of people are often overlooked. The bag clerk at the grocery market, the person at the front desk, the folks who carry our mail or clean our streets or who are considered too old, or too young, or too…
What could happen if every day we were to greet each human as though they were worthy of notice and respect? What could happen if every day you were greeted as though you were worthy of notice and respect? What could change?
There is a certain cult of personality even among those of us whose lives are committed to social transformation. A lot of jockeying goes on around who gets noticed for acclaim, who gets the big dollars, who gets the media attention. Many of our social movements are less effective than they could be because of this competition for limelight or resources.
The reality is that most folks working for change do so because they care about their community or issue, not because they are looking for recognition or awards. Nonetheless, their work is crucial and necessary and is deserving of respect even if it goes unheralded. They may be unsung, but they are certainly heroes.
I’ve said for years that everyone takes leadership in some way every day. Everyone. Most acts of leadership go unnoticed or unacknowledged, and that’s a shame. The cultural pattern of noticing only some types of leadership and ignoring others contributes to the erasure of large groups of folks—women, poor and working-class people, and, yes, young African-American men.
If we can find ways to see each other, to honor the existence of every being who co-inhabits this wonderful earth with us, if no young person ever has need to thank a stranger for merely seeing them, then we will have done a fine thing.
Here’s my invitation to you: let’s take a month and intentionally notice those we would normally not see. Let’s interrupt old patterns of not looking into the eyes of “those people” (whoever they are to you). Let’s greet and acknowledge the folks we generally walk by or around and watch what happens.
So let’s say “Hey” to someone new tomorrow. I’ll bet we have conversations that surprise us. I’ll bet we learn something new.
From my heart to yours.