Swapping Skins

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." - Albert Einstein

Sitting here in my white, middle-class living room watching cities across the country convulse and burn, I wonder what will come of such ugly confrontations. The brutal death of George Floyd has reignited racial tensions and fanned the flames of protest from coast to coast. Sometimes white folks like me get more upset about the violence and looting in our cities than the lethal behavior of racist cops.

Social scientists tell us that it is nearly impossible for people who are part of the dominant culture to understand what life is like from the underside. But white folks like me think we do. We would argue that as educated and informed adults we can identify the needs and feelings of people unlike ourselves. After all, we watch the news, our own brand of it, and we have our own backlog of experiences and influences. So don't tell us that we don't understand. We're certain that we know the score, but the plain reality hasn't changed. When you are on top, it's difficult to see the bottom side of life.

So, our conversations turn into debates and morph into arguments. Temperatures rise to a boiling point. "Don't tell me I just don't know. Always playing the race card, always whining for special treatment, always playing the victim. Get over it."  

Debating the issue never gets us anywhere. Maybe what we need to make sense of all this is imagination. Let's try this little experiment. I'll lay out the case studies and you imagine the scene and how you would feel to witness such things. Here we go.

Imagine the boy's body lying next to a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea was white, shot by a black vigilante. 

Imagine a white man birdwatching in the park asking a black woman to keep her dog on a leash. Imagine her calling the police, "There's a white man here threatening my life. Send the police right away."

Imagine the twelve-year-old boy bleeding out in the snow with a replica toy Airsoft gun in his pocket was white, shot by a black police officer.

Imagine the man who was sitting on his couch eating ice cream was white, and the off duty police officer who entered the wrong apartment and shot him in the heart was black.  

Imagine two black men with guns chasing down a white jogger, confronting and killing him in the street.

Imagine forty heavily-armed black men in military fatigues entering a state capitol building to protest, carrying "Black Power" banners instead of Confederate flags.

Imagine a black police officer with his knee crushing the neck of a white man begging for his breath as his neighbors look on in horror.

A little imagination can be a frightening thing, can't it? How did you feel as you imagined the tables turned and the roles reversed? Suddenly you are identifying with the victims rather than the offenders. A sense of anger, even outrage, simmers up as we think of people like us being victimized.

Though we try to imagine these scenarios, we have to admit how unlikely they are. And even if these reversed confrontations ever did take place, our society would never stand for it. Such actions would never be tolerated. Justice would be swift and certain. There would be no looking the other way, no stalling, no rationalizing. The guilty would be charged, and justice would be done.

And that's just the point, isn't it? The moment we swap skins with our black brothers, the world looks different. We see things more clearly, life from the underside. We feel their angst, we hear their cries, we find the source of their rage. We may just find ourselves demanding justice rather than defending the unconscionable. 

Imagine a place and time not so far from here and now, where we can celebrate our common humanity as children of God, where peace and justice are not empty dreams but a present reality. Not sure where it is or when we will get there, but I am going. I want to be there with all my brothers and sisters. How about you?


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