It Can Be Difficult to Really See Other People. It’s Easy for a Person You Don’t Know to Become the Frightening Stranger

[Thomas Moore, “It can be difficult to really see other people” Charlotte Observer (04/08/03): 13A]

Did you know that North Carolina Governor Mike Easley recently made me a district court judge in Mecklenburg County? Me neither, until I got a letter of congratulations from the lieutenant governor. It was a kind gesture, but wrong. I hadn’t been appointed to anything. The lieutenant governor had mistaken me for someone else. The note reminded me of how little we know each other. How seldom we really see other people. How much we choose not to see.

I recall many times when people have misconstrued who I am and projected their fears on me. I’m an early childhood consultant and speak frequently at national teachers’ conferences with mostly female participants. I’m also a big guy. When I step into a hotel elevator with women, get off the same floor, and follow them as I head to my room, I can feel their fear. Their attitude changes entirely when they realize I’m the keynote speaker. Though I’m never sure if they’re afraid because I’m black, male, or both, I can sympathize. Women face real issues of safety in our society. Still, the situation always hurts. These people don’t know me. They assume they do.

I’ve been guilty of the same mistake. I was once late to lead a workshop in a Mississippi town. And I was lost. I stopped at a filling station. A bunch of older country gentlemen sat out front. Oh no, I thought. Racists. Rednecks. I haltingly asked for directions. That group couldn’t have been kinder. Though stereotypes sometimes melt away through quick exchanges, we usually discover our connections to others through meaningful conversation.

Recently, following a prayer, a woman in my church singing group confided that her Armenian mother was born and raised in Baghdad, immigrating here to attend college. My friend feels conflicted about the war. Another singer has in-laws in Baghdad. A third has a son serving in Kuwait. Until just a few days ago, I didn’t know any of this about people I see every week.

The culture of Charlotte and surrounding areas doesn’t make it easy to create real friendships. The more segregated our institutions become, the less chance we have to get to know each other. We have gotten comfortable with segregation, or re-segregation, in our houses of worship, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods. It’s easy for a person you don’t know to become the frightening stranger who will follow you down the hall at night.

And now, some of those strangers have Iraqi faces. I pray for our soldiers in Iraq. But I also know that to live with civilian casualties, the soldiers — and all of us back home — can’t fully see the Iraqis as our brothers and sisters. They will become our friends again once the war is over and we can help them rebuild. Then the Iraqis will have to change the way they see us, too.

I think this distancing has made many of us feel helpless during wartime. But there is hope. Charlotteans are reaching out to Iraqis by contributing to refugee relief efforts. Here at home, some businesses, churches and private schools are trying to become more diverse, providing important opportunities for us to unite more as a community. Individuals can do a lot. All it requires is getting out of your comfort zone. Try Joe Martin’s idea and have lunch once a month with someone from another race. Spend time at cultural events from other cultures, whether that’s an evening of African songs and drumming, a Latin dance or a classical music concert. Volunteer for an organization run by people different from you. Listen to radio and TV programs with varying viewpoints. Learn about other religious beliefs, and go to one of their services.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books “Where is Thumbkin?” and “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”. He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series “Music, Movement and More”. He has also produced ten recordings for children.