There are many wonderful things about St. Louis, but for years I’ve seen the tension in this town grow as communities group themselves into different clique-like huddles based on ethnic, income, and interests. Having worked in North County for the last 9 years, it’s saddened me to see the tensions between groups erupt into violence this past weekend. It breaks my heart.
Of course, race is only one way people use to classify each other. Even as a privileged white male, I’ve personally experienced prejudice. When I was young, a police officer once was surprised that my father had beautiful handwriting, making the assumption that because we were “poor”, we must also be uneducated.
It goes even more granular than that: I’ve been called racial slurs for living in a mostly white city (St. Charles), harassed by police because I’m a male in my 20’s and MUST be doing drugs if I play music, and in one bizarre case, held at gunpoint because an officer couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind would jump rope at 2 AM (last time I ever worked out after a show).
We classify and organize everything. There’s just too much information for us to process. We get lazy, so we take mental shortcuts. A black man walks down a street, resists arrest, and we assume he must be guilty. A person works at McDonalds, and we assume he isn’t smart enough to find a better job. A musician doesn’t dress like you think a cool musician should, and you ignore him at the show. We shift, sort, and arrange the data we collect each day into drawers, and if the square peg doesn’t fit, we pound it through with a hammer.
We must start small. We must remember to listen, to forgo judgement, and give grace in the minutia. We’ve got to judge each person based on their actions, on who they really are. We can’t be lazy- we can’t afford to miss opportunities.
A few years ago I was hanging out in between shows I was playing at a local church. A lady that I’d seen in the choir I was accompanying was sitting by herself eating lunch. She was middle aged, not dressed particularly “edgy” by my warped teen standards, and just didn’t fit my pre-conceived notion of what a “cool” person should be.
I almost chose to sit by myself and ignore her. But I was bored, and decided to talk to her anyway. She turned out to be one of the kindest and most amazing people I’ve ever met, not to mention a winner of 7 Emmy awards for her work as a film director. She has a picture of her and Jay Leno framed on her kitchen counter, with the inscription “you’re an amazing person- thanks for being such a great friend” scrawled in black sharpie across the picture.
I’m so fortunate that against my biased, petty stereotypes, I talked to her. I would have missed out on knowing one of the most extraordinary individuals in the St. Louis area, all because I categorized before I understood.
My prayer for St. Louis is that out of the tragedy of this time, we learn to ignore the superficial, listen, and begin to bring true peace to this city through understanding. And to borrow a stereotype, let it begin with me.