I'm as timely as ever, getting to work on a piece about MLK Day just as the clock is about to strike midnight, and this day passes until 2006.
As a white male who grew up in middle class suburbia, I can now look back at my upbringing and say that it was privileged. I hate to say that, because I don't mean to convey that I was or am better than anyone else. I can't say lucky because I think that denigrates the sacrifices that my parents made in order for their children to have the opportunities that we did.
We were fortunate. We went to good schools and felt safe. We took so much for granted.
I read a lot when I was a kid, so I was introduced to the class struggles all over the world at a relatively early age. I found it amazing that certain groups of people would treat others poorly based on the amount of money that they had, or what religion they chose to follow. I am sure that the first example of this was the story of Thanksgiving, how we learned that the pilgrims decided to sail to the New World because they were being persecuted in England because they did not want to follow a certain faith. It wasn't until I was ten years old, I believe, that I truly understood that society had also created problems based solely upon the color of people's skin.
That was when I watched "Roots" on television. I'll never forgot watching the first episode, and seeing how the white men captured native Africans, put them in chains and forced them into ships that took them overseas to a lifetime of slavery, if they managed to survive the inhumane conditions on board. I couldn't believe that people could treat each other like that.
I know that "Roots" is ultimately a story of triumph and survival but I never got past the first episode, how cruel it was. As I watched the remainder of the series, I never forgot how it all began. As I said, I was ten, but I know that it had a profound affect on me, and made me want to treat all people better. Between that and the lessons of my upbringing, I think I did OK with how I felt about everyone, but my experiences with minorities were few until I graduated college and went to work in the retail field.
Fast forward almost twenty years after "Roots": I am now a general manager for a retail drug store chain in Chicago, working at a store near the lakefront on the North side. One afternoon I got a call from my boss, who wanted to see me at the corporate offices ASAP. I knew what that meant, they wanted to transfer me to a different location. So I was not all that surprised when I arrived there and he told me that I was being moved.
I was surprised at where I was being moved. There's a neighborhood on the West side of Chicago called Humboldt Park and we had a store located there. I had never stepped inside the place, but I had heard a whole bunch of horror stories about it: out of control shoplifting, drug dealing, looting after the Bulls won the championship, etc. This store was always on my short list of what I used to call "Please don't send me there" stores.
Guess I could cross that one off!
I went. I was definitely the "minority" at the store. There were days when I never saw another white person until I left the city. I spent a year running that store, and now that my retail management career is over, I can honestly say that this was the best year of my career. This is the only store I ever worked at where 100% of the staff lived in the neighborhood around the store; I was the only person who didn't live nearby. I never saw more smiles or heard more laughter than I did here. I never met more family members of staff than I did here. I never had more people bring me samples of food that they made at home here.
And I never had a better overall store performance pertaining to budgets, expenses and other "corporate stuff" than I did here.
I never felt more welcomed and respected than I did here. And all my other stores put together failed to have the sense of pride that this store did.
I wasn't happy when I was transferred to this store. I allowed myself to get caught up in all the rumors and innuendos about it. It sounded like a tremendous challenge, and quite frankly I had spent my entire career up until this point dealing with challenges. I wanted a store somewhere out in the burbs, with a veteran crew that was no-nonsense. I wanted a store that "ran itself."
I was lucky. I got one. I can't help but look back at my trepidation now with embarrassment. I allowed stereotyping to form an opinion when I should have waited until I had a chance to experience things first hand. When they transferred meout of this store, they almost had to drag me out of there. This is still the only place where people cried with sadness at news that I was leaving (trust me, at other locations many, many, many people cried in happiness when I left...); this store and I were a perfect fit.
If there is one thing I am thankful for concerning my former career, it is the lesson it taught me about diversity. It should be common knowledge that all people of all creeds and races are capable of brilliance and should be treated with respect. I can only imagine how I would have hurt the staff at Humboldt Park if I had gone in there with a chip on my shoulder and a demeaning attitude.
I'm happy and grateful that I live in a country that honors a man like Dr. King, who gave his life trying to get everyone to see that message, that all men are created equal, that we are all entitled to the same rights. There are points in our history that are shameful and it is important that we teach our kids about it, so that they recognize it and know that it cannot be tolerated again.
I know that I can never truly appreciate the minority experience in this country because of who I am and where I came from. I would never pretend that I do. It's just not possible. But I can remember one year where I was not like everyone else and I can remember that in a lot of ways, it may have been the best year of my life.
I hope I live to see a time when it is like that all around, everywhere you and I happen to go.