Race is a touchy topic. But today, in celebration of Martin Luther King Day, I feel like it’s important that we address it.
MLK Day became a really important day for me ever since I began meeting with my senior buds for our weekly storytelling sessions in late 2009. I am a little embarrassed to admit it – but the truth is, as an Asian American, even as a minority, I couldn’t relate to the holiday before, not in my heart. I could only appreciate it from a distance, academically and historically. Hearing my senior buds tell me their experiences changed that. It just so happens that there is a large African American population in downtown Philadelphia where our sessions take place; many of the seniors I spend time with and are proud to call my best friends, are black.
I learned that many of them heard Dr. King speak before he became known. I learned that the struggle for racial equality – specifically the equality of black and whites – was a continuous process defined by everyday moments, not just defined by a single speech. My senior buds were part of the change. They put effort into it. They didn’t just happen to be there. Their college dorm rooms didn’t become desegregated in one day. They put on many protests as students to send a message to the dean, until the school took action.
I also learned that the struggle for racial equality is far from over. Last August, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri reignited nationwide unrest, debates and protests about the state of civil rights today. Sparked by the news, my senior buds and I had some very candid conversations about their own experiences.
So you know what, the topic of race may be touchier than it’s ever been. But here, through stories, among friends, we are not afraid to touch it:
Let's read one more. Here's a recent one by Elliot:
I grew up with the “herd” mentality. There was a group of guys – myself included – who used to band together, which gave us camaraderie and protection.
When we left our neighborhood, we had to travel with the herd for individual as well as group protection. I would do just about everything and anything to protect the herd. There was no leader. We were all there for each other. That’s why I call it the herd.
There were many days when I was surrounded by violence and aggression. I have been shot, stabbed and ganged. And there was no police protection for me at that time, especially in certain neighborhoods because they just didn’t care.
I have been told by the police, “I don’t want to see you in this neighborhood.” It was because of my skin color. This was in Philadelphia. This stuff wasn’t just happening in Alabama. For example, I was afraid to go to certain schools and certain parts of the city because of the racial conflicts that were happening at that time. One place in particular – Southern High School at Broad and Snyder – is still there today.
If I had a fight with a white boy at the end of the school day, all his uncles would meet me outside, grown men. My older brother went there so I had to get the herd together to go down there, to make sure he was safe. He was older but I protected him, because he was so outnumbered there. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t actually in a fight. When the men showed up, they were just looking for the first black kid. Just guys, they didn’t bother the girls. Any black guy. They called it setting an example. It worked.