The change that began within me
Racism has deep roots — it will take time and personal action to remove it
By Mike Morse
I recall falling victim to discrimination at the age of 15, in high school.
The schools where I lived weren’t the greatest, so my parents, wanting the best education possible for me, enrolled me in a school outside of my neighborhood. I was one of the few African Americans in a predominantly Caucasian school.
At first it wasn’t a problem to leave my black neighborhood to go to school with those not of my race. The full hour it took to arrive there with public transportation and the comprehension that it must be a better school was the bigger focus than the different races.
Soon after the year began, some students began mistreating me because I was African American. I was also small for my age, and they made it very clear with their comments that I had less value than they. They spat on me, took my books and threw them down the hallway, and called me names using the derogatory “N” word. They thought it was fun and natural.
I, however, was terrified. No one came to my assistance. I used the restroom only during class when there were fewer students. It reached the point where I avoided the hallways where they were. In class I was the object to be made fun of. The teachers knew what was happening, but nobody came to my aid.
In those years I was also attending various youth gatherings of the Focolare Movement. Having learned about the Gen (the committed youth of the Focolare), I eventually made the choice to try to live like one. Being too young to drive, the adult leaders came to pick me up by car to take me to the weekly meetings.
I truly enjoyed being with the Gen. But picking me up meant they, none of which were African American, had to drive into my neighborhood, wait for me to get in the car and drive away. This meant driving by my friends and them seeing us in the car. Soon afterwards, I was asked why I was hanging out with those people. Here too I had to deal with race: choosing one over another.
My aunt was a Spanish teacher in an inner-city school in Brooklyn. She too told stories, but the most inspiring one was how she was the first Black woman to graduate from her university with top grades. These and others were the stories she shared with us at the dinner table.
Those were tough years. But as we know, racism didn’t disappear the day I graduated, nor when I became old enough to drive myself to the meetings. My experience shows me that it has always existed. It’s a poison with deep roots.
Today I see many ideas for change: defunding police, dismantling law enforcement, getting rid of statues, taking down flags — but I wonder if those will get rid of racism. While we reach back into time and aim at removing what stood for racist behavior, does it help us uproot it today?
I believe that a change of heart should be our focus. Reform means to have a change of thought, of behavior, of heart. It could mean to re-teach human values, re-emphasize the dignity of each person. This would have major consequences, such as in economics, politics, social services.
If instead of simply removing a statue, we taught about the evil that was done and recognized collectively that it was wrong. Might not that recognition lead to a growing understanding that we are all equal? Isn’t this what so many people whose statues and pictures represent have truly fought for?
Racism lurks in the hearts of people, but the way to remove it is a personal action. We can make the effort to firmly believe that the person next to us is just as precious as I am.
I, being Black, am a firm believer that the lives of Black people matter. Facing each new day is a demonstration of that. After years of being involved in efforts to build unity, to work for peace and justice, to help educate those who knew less than I, to support and help adults further their education, to instill hope in the hopeless, to advocate for self-worth, my life has changed.
I have met and worked with people from different races, religions and cultures. The variety of human qualities and heroic traits I saw in others at times made me feel inadequate. I wondered if I could become like them. But with time I understood what I have, the gifts God has given me, and it was many of those same people, who were not African American, that showed me the great idea of loving the other culture as my own. Then I got it.
My eyes were opened. Difference in color and race was not important. Social class, economic status evaporated. Who stood before me was a gift, a source of all things good. I then tried to treat them as such. Life became full of treasures. I had made the change, which began within me.
I’m not sure that at the age of 15, as the fear welled up inside me and the anger choked me while being treated like trash, if I was thinking that each of those students was as equal as myself. But after all the life experiences I have had along the way, today I would truly say it.
And I do. I honestly believe that each person, no matter the color of his or her skin, is a gift for me, a richness for me, precisely because God made them. And I hope that that person would say the same about me. If each of us did that, we wouldn’t know racism.
Ending injustice starts with me, with us.
Recently Jesús Morán, co-president of the Focolare Movement, said that sincere discernment starts with a “self-accusation”: what needs to change in me? What is the conversion to which I am called? This seems to be the right way to go.
Mike Morse is the co-director of Focolare’s little town Mariapolis Luminosa and of the Youth Center North America.
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