It was the 2nd week of August in Chicago, just after a nasty round of looting had destroyed the Magnificent Mile, a popular shopping street in downtown Chicago. The city government, in response, enforced a 9 pm city-wide curfew, even drawing-up the bridges into the city as a way to discourage further vandalism. This looting was tied to the Black Live’s Matter movement, and similar looting episodes are one of the unsavory aspects of the movement. While racism must be destroyed and equality gained, many people believe that looting and vandalism deflect from the movement’s message and potentially damages its credibility.
Amongst the city’s shut down and social disruption, I found myself in Chicago’s downtown district, watching the clock inch closer and closer to 9 P.M.. I was desperately in need of an Uber before the bridges were drawn—a modern-day Cinderella story. It was my luck that Ricky showed up as my driver, taking me safely home while educating me on the looting, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the importance of music. From his manner of speech to his manner of being, Ricky gave off a welcoming, non-judgmental energy, exactly the kind of person I search to converse with and interview. Before exiting the car, I asked Ricky if we could do a formal interview together.
His ‘yes’ amalgamated into this post on race, communication, and education; and, of course, the beauty within all of this.
How do you feel when someone asks you about racism?
Ricky takes a breath, “I am all for having a discourse about race, social justice, or any issue, but with this question, my feelings are split in two:
“On one end, being a black man in the United States of American, when I get asked a race question, I think, ‘Again?’. I have to constantly let people know how I feel and what it is like to be a black man in America—this can be a bit exhausting [to explain, especially considering] the history that black people have had in this country. In this respect, these conversations can be exhausting.
“On the other end, there is the discourse. I feel like the only way that people will reach understanding and learn from one another is by having open discussions. And I am mature enough to be willing to move past the exhaustion of answering these questions, especially if I feel like the person who is asking the question can learn from what I am saying.
“As a black man it is exhausting to have conversations about race and racism because these are topics that I feel everyone should get [by now], but we all have different experiences and come from different walks of life, so I cannot expect another person to understand what I am saying and how I feel, especially if they have been—for lack of a better term— ignorant to my position.”
Ricky is quick to clarify his last sentence, “I do not mean ‘ignorant’ per-say, but ignorant as in not growing up in the way that I grew up, in certain areas.
“For example, Chicago is a rough city, and you learn from an early age to have thick skin. One of the things that I appreciated while growing up was that my mom forced me to think outside of the environment I grew up in. A majority of my life I grew up in the hood, so you see gangs, you see drugs, you see things like that, but she always encouraged me to look outside of the box. These boxes are created to keep people from having a discussion, coming into each other’s worlds, and understanding each other.”
The box metaphor sticks with me—only a few weeks in this city is sufficient to notice the hodgepodge of distinct neighbors surrounding downtown proper and to feel their seemingly incompatible cultures.
Ricky likes this metaphor too, extrapolating, “I use the analogy of a box, too, because if you look at Chicago on a grid, the city is a whole bunch of boxes right next to each other: Chinatown, Little Italy, [Pilsen, Hermosa, River North]. All these boxes are pockets of different races and different nationalities who dwell amongst themselves.
“Chicago, historically, has always been a segregated city, so with things happening now, and considering this box analogy, we need to have these uncomfortable conversations sometimes. When we are trying to bring people together and spark change, we need to have uncomfortable conversations. We are all taught by society to stand in our box and not see someone else’s point of view, and this is why we are in the position we are in right now.”
How do you feel about self-segregation?
“In-and-of-itself, this is a natural occurrence, and for many ethnicities, and especially in Chicago, [self-segregation] is a matter of self-preservation. Additionally, minds that think alike tend to stick together— maybe they like the same music or they have the same ideology—this is a natural thing.
“I think the issue comes when you don’t try to learn about anything outside of your box or to consider a thought process different from your own. It is selfish when you refuse to look at other points of view.”
Do you feel that there is a type of person who is more closed off?
“I’ll say this, I love music and I listen to all types of music, so I use music as a tool [in my Uber rides] to break down barriers. This can be something as simple as playing Jamiroquai’s 1994 Space Cowboy. When a rider asks, ‘What’s this [song]?’, that barrier is broken and I’ve made that person comfortable though music. And if they follow up that question with another question, then we start having a discourse, and we [eventually] get into the state of Chicago and Black Lives Matter.
“I do not get people that are stand-off-ish; these people are the minority. Most people that I pick up while driving Uber are talkative— they like having a conversation.”
Do you think this tendency is in part due to who you are?
“I would think so. You know, everyone has preconceived notions about people when they first meet them. And I know for a fact that when people get in my car, they probably have preconceived notions about me. I am a bigger guy and, if you were to just look at me, I look intimidating, but when I start talking, I can talk about music and a lot of different things. It makes people want to engage more in conversation.
“It is because of how naturally I am, too; I like to break that ice. And not simply to prove people wrong, because I think this is not the right approach, but more to let people know that I am multifaceted and that we can talk about whatever. I have gained a lot of friends over the years through having conversations.”
Were you born with this ability to make people feel at ease, or was this something you learned?
“My mom would tell me that even as a kid, playing at the playground, I easily made friends, and I carried that throughout the years. I was the kid that got along with all the stereotypical high school groups and I helped bridge the gap between people in these different groups. And I bring this full circle back to mom because she’s the reason I am naturally like this; it was how she raised me.”
What do you think ‘bridging’ the gap’ between groups means?
“I think a common misconception is that bridging a gap means that you must compromise a part of yourself. When I bridge the gap between people, it is not me compromising the core of who I am. It is me saying, ‘This is who I am and this is who you are, let’s come together and learn from each other.’ I like to learn, and I know that my perspective is not the end-all, be-all of everything. I think when you come into any situation and remain humble—you do not think that you are the ideal in any given situation—you will be able to learn new things and, [vice versa], to teach someone else. That is what is important.”
I will never be a black man in America.
To what extent do you think this fact matters or limits my understanding and learning about racism and inequality?
“I think that the beautiful part about learning is that once you equip yourself with the truth, the truth makes you move differently and it challenges you to be different. If you know the world we are living in and its history, that is all you need.
“There is only so much that you can delve into a black person’s experience, but that does not mean that the knowledge you acquire is invalid. Lacking this experience does not diminish you or your understanding.
“It is about being aware, and I think a lot of people confuse this. They think being aware is not enough. I think this is just guilt. People have guilt about what is going and that this racism has been going on for so long.
“Right now we are seeing not only the confrontation of racism, but also the confrontation between the of old way of thinking and the new way of thinking. That is why you see a lot of these millennials, from all ethnic groups, going out and saying, ‘Black Lives Matter is real, racism sucks, and these police officers need to be held accountable for what they have done.’ This is about humanity and equality, about not taking advantage of people or oppressing people because of the color of their skin. And it is the millennials and the younger generations that are out there, risking their lives and getting arrested as they protest for black equality. And it is not just black equality; they are fighting for any injustice that is happening.
“I am 33, and the generation before me was also protesting, but it was different. The aggression we see today was born in my generation. But with the millennials, it is full-on fire; they do not care and they are so sick of the system. This is tangible when you are talking about an actual revolution. They are ready to burn everything down and build it back up. I know a lot of these kids have equipped themselves with the truth, taking a personal responsibility to educate themselves, and once they are equipped with that truth, they rally to change things.
“To answer your question with this in mind, it is all about what you do with the knowledge once you have it. Ignorance is bliss, but when you learn that the world we live in is dark, evil, and ugly, you have to ask yourself: ‘What I am going to do to help change that?’
“And I feel that, for me, being a black man, the least I can do is have conversations with people like yourself, and anybody willing to listen, and have an intellectual discourse about racism. The fact that you even asked me about how I feel as a black man in America makes me believed that you are trying to understand the plight of what is going on. And once you know, once you understand, it is a matter of what you are going to do about it.”
What would you say to someone feels guilt once they learn about racism in America– and the world?
“It is natural to feel guilt, but this piggybacks on what I said about acquiring knowledge. If you do feel that guilt and shame, do whatever you can within your means to be the spark for change. You can stand up and you can be different, even if the people around you are not okay with you doing so.
“All this shame, guilt, and bad feeling, it is just different types of energy. I’ve felt rage during this movement, and I have wanted to go and break windows, light things on fire, and cause chaos. But that was just energy I was feeling internally, and I know that there are consequences and reactions to every action.
“Instead of me reacting outwardly in a negative way, I focus on having conversations with people, I extent kindness and understanding. Let me tell somebody, ‘Hey you said this, and that is kind of messed up, and this is why it is messed up.’ Allow people to understand, instead of automatically reacting with anger [or guilt/shame], even if it is what you feel initially.
“It is about rechanneling the energy into something positive, and I think guilt can be rechanneled, as well, into something that benefits others rather than causing a negative [chain] reaction. I think one of the best things you can do is to take that guilt, take that shame, and do something positive with it.”
Is there anything else you want to say?
“I want to reiterate how important it is to communicate effectively. And it is something I am still learning to do, how to communicate in a way where you are not offending other people.
“We are so caught up in our immediate world, and we need to check our heads and realize that we do not have the only perspective. If everyone approaches communication with this mindset, we can have a more positive dialogue that will spark change— true change.
“Change is deeper than putting a BLM sign on your window. Ask yourself, what are you doing to create that change? It all starts with that dialogue and communication. And I think people need to take on the personal responsibility to do that research because you cannot expect everyone to be willing to have a conversation about race.”
What do you think is the quality that makes a person begin this path of education, activism, and effective communication?
“It starts with love, we live in this world together, and if we do not have love for our fellow brothers and sisters, nothing is going to change.
“If you have friends who have been victims of social injustice, maybe because of their sexual orientation or race, your love for them leads you towards wanting to understand their situations. This leads to knowledge, which leads to action.
“We all need love, and we must start there because it is the catalyst for everything.”
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