It wasn’t my first encounter with a blatantly racist human being. Growing up half black and half Asian-Pacific islander in a predominantly white neighborhood in the middle of the Delawarean country meant racism was no surprise to me. I just learned over time to understand its roots, identify its many forms, ignore its intent, and frankly, accept it as another facet of life.
The racism I have experienced in nearly three-decades hasn’t solely permeated from the Caucasian race. People of my own race rejected me too many times to count, but always for the same reason: I was too white. I am confident I am not the first or last black girl to be admonished this way. My speech was too articulate, my hair too long and not nappy enough, I didn’t recognize or speak Ebonics, I didn’t live in a predominantly black neighborhood…the list goes on. The black girls who chastised me for being everything they were not never invited me to their house for play dates, they never offered to show me how to braid hair, and they never seemed interested in teaching me the deficits of my cultural awareness according to their perceptions of me.
I have always tried to appreciate the goodness of people who have treated me well, regardless of skin color or race. It’s not like I have discerned white people as treating me better. It’s not like I have clenched to my dream of becoming an incredibly articulate and captivating writer, speaker, and leader because I thought that’s what great white people do. My childhood memories of racism don’t taint my desire to be the best version of myself, I don’t care what color the best version ends up being. Although, I’m aiming for a version that is multi-colored like a rainbow so I can eternally be remembered as a multi-faceted and beautiful example of “happy.”
So given all racism has meant to me, it was no surprise that one of my first clients as an attorney and criminal defense lawyer was a confidently racist man. I have always found God to have an unimaginable sense of humor disguised as intentional challenges that lead to triumph. D.R. was in custody on a misdemeanor stalking charge so he had a lot of time to write letters, which I received and kept. They included offensive language, racist rants, and banter. I hung them on my office wall throughout my two years as a public defender because there was something incredibly powerful about voluntarily representing an ungrateful and mean client because you passionately believe in defending individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
I never thought I’d see D.R. again. But like I mentioned before, God’s sense of humor is unimaginable.
So on Sunday, I was sitting at the head of an elongated brown wooden table which had grooves like those found on a park picnic table. I was waiting for a prospective client to join me for coffee and I had chosen a local coffee shop I never frequent because I live 25 miles west. My eyes were drawn to this guy whose red face I couldn’t distract away from, whose eyes I knew were painfully familiar. Then, as he was adding sugar to his coffee behind me, I said to him, “I know you.”
He uttered some offensive joke about meeting me and taking me home last night. I told him that wasn’t it. Instead, I jogged his memory and connected the dots about where our paths had crossed before. He paused while his face turned pale, his hand stopped stirring the sugar in his cup. What he did next changed my life.
He picked up his paper coffee cup, walked over to the table where my stuff was spread atop, he pulled out a chair, looked at me and said, “May I join you? Do you have a minute?”
His presence was as confident and aggressive as I remember, and his conversation remained erratic. But I had never before sat at a table and enjoyed a cup of coffee with someone who had called me a nigger before. I had never smiled, laughed, and joked with someone who called me a bitch and told me I was worthless. But in that moment, I was unafraid, I was unintimidated, and unexpectedly forgiving. He said he was sorry. Sorry for ever saying all the awful things he did, sorry for ever treating me so nasty. He said he was doing well, getting back on his feet, trying to stay out of trouble.
But his biggest moment of redemption was when he explained why he treated me that way. He had been raised to be racist and admits his own ignorance kept him that way. He said in the past 6 months he finally realized that the foolishness of his choice to remain an ignorant racist kept him from enjoying a lot of wonderful people.
I forgave him years ago because I knew his behavior was a product of ignorance. It doesn’t matter to me if he has actually changed or if he continues to be a racist. People like him exist everywhere. But what does matter to me, and the reason why I’ve share this story, is the power of open-mindedness.
So many people denounce racism and hatred, but how many of those people would encourage a man who spews tenets of both, to take a seat at the table? To invite that man to chat over coffee?
By being open-minded in every situation you face, you can possibly bring positivity into your being and your life, you can succumb to chance encounters and force yourself to thrive in painful situations just by offering forgiveness over a cup of coffee.