Recent events at Ferguson reminded me of an experience I had several years ago on my way to work. While driving down Fair Oaks Avenue, I came upon a police blockade. When it was my turn to pass, an officer asked me for my driver’s license, added apologetically that it was just a “routine check,” and waved me through hassle-free.
As I drove away, I could not help but think back to several conversations I’d had in recent months with fellow Pasadenans. An African-American friend told me that when he comes to a roadblock, he stops the car, puts his hands on the dashboard in clear view, and asks the officer if he should come out of the car. “It’s not worth risking a misunderstanding,” he said, “or becoming a victim of mistaken identity.”
Another friend told me of the sheer terror he experiences every time he gets in his car. Although he has lived and worked in Pasadena for many years, and his children are U.S. citizens, he has been waiting almost 20 years to adjust his own immigration status. Being pulled over by a police officer in Pasadena could mean excessive court fees and fines, losing the truck in which he needs to carry out his construction work, and possible deportation. In short, it could cost him his livelihood and even this family.
It was during my tenure at the Office for Creative Connections, after listening to people’s daily experiences, that the need for serious dialoguie about strutural racism became clear. City Conversations was born out of this need. During these conversations we often heard about the subtle nature of racism, its invisibility to the populations in our city that are not directly affected by it.
Personally, City Conversations became a humbling and important journey for me – an opportunity to look critically at my own prejudices. I had a new appreciation for the degree to which I can live my life not thinking about race or ethnicity, while others did not experience that luxury. And as a person of faith, I’ve had to question whether I, too, have been complicit in accepting or participating in policies and practices that have kept people on the margins of our city.
I continue to be made aware of the pain and frustration people carry from years of not being heard related to the injustices they experience on a daily basis and, as Ferguson reminds us, the way daily slights and stereotyping can quickly become a matter of life or death.
I deeply respect the mission of the YWCA to eliminate racism in Pasadena. A good way to begin is to make open and honest dialogue about racism and inequities an ongoing process and an absolute priority in our city.