A little empathy goes a long way

By John Peters - [email protected]

I shared this story once before, in a column maybe 7 or 8 years ago, but I think it bears repeating today.

My first editor’s post was at a tiny weekly newspaper in Northumberland County, Virginia.

I had been on the job less than two weeks when it became time to award a scholarship to a graduating senior from the local high school, an annual exercise the paper’s ownership undertook in each community where it owned a newspaper. The application process was simple — an essay on what the student wanted to accomplish over the next four years after high school graduation along with an interview by a scholarship committee.

That committee was a group I appointed. Among the local individuals I asked to serve was a retired educator and school administrator who was serving on the county board of commissioners (though they are called supervisors in Virginia).

On the day the students were to meet with the committee, all were present except for the retired educator. I called his home — this was in the days before cell phones — and couldn’t reach him. I called a few other folks who knew him, but they didn’t know where he was. We had to proceed without him.

That evening I called to make sure he was okay. He acted puzzled at first, then increasingly irate, and then outright hostile. He claimed he had no idea what I was talking about, that I had told him the meeting was two days from now, not today.

Then he made a statement that, quite honestly, nearly floored me.

“You did this because I’m black, didn’t you?”

It was a question, but make no mistake, he made it clear there was no other answer, that he was absolutely certain that’s what I had done. For the next five minutes or so, he berated me, calling me names, telling me he was tired of racists like me (yes, he called me racist several times).

I was certain I had given him the correct date and time, yet I apologized for any misunderstanding. I was truly speechless. I’d never been called a racist before, and quite honestly, I was growing angrier and angrier by the moment. I checked my notes, I had told him the correct date and time. I was young, and not certain how forceful I could be with someone in this situation without losing my new job, so I kept my cool during the call.

But afterward I was steaming. How dare he? There was only one racist on that telephone call, and it surely wasn’t me. This guy — he simply made an assumption about me because I was white, and then stated it as if it were fact. If there wasn’t a better definition of racism, I didn’t now what would be.

Then my phone rang. I answered, and it was this gentleman. I wasn’t sure what else he had to say, but I wasn’t going to be so accommodating to his accusations this time.

He told me he checked the calendar after our call and I had, in fact, given him the correct day, he’d just forgotten. He apologized for missing the meeting, and profusely apologized for the other things he said. I told him it was okay, I understood, but the truth was I was still angry. I didn’t like being called a racist, I didn’t like the fact that this man was clearly a racist and bigoted, yet if I dared call him on that, he’d be able to play the race card and make me look bad.

But later that night I started thinking — in the age before the Internet, with no cable television where I was living, there was time to sit and think at night (something today’s social media darlings might try on occasion). This gentleman had grown up in Northumberland County, then left to attend college, spent most of his career in and around Baltimore, before retiring in his 60s and returning home.

He’d spent his childhood and youth, his college years and the first years of his professional life being treated as a second-class citizen — not allowed to eat in some restaurants, told to go to separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, treated like he didn’t matter — only because of the color of his skin.

No doubt during much of his career he’d had to put up with lower pay, less respect, even being passed over for promotions. Again, because of the color of his skin.

Then I wondered — if I’d gone through the same things, if I’d lived that life, would I be any different than him?

This gentleman had eventually become a principal, then an assistant superintendent. He’d met with professional and personal success, but in so doing he’d overcome more obstacles than I would ever know. It had left him bitter in certain ways. He did view the world through the filter of race, at times exhibiting the same racism that had been directed at him most of his life.

But would I be any better in the same place?

Probably not. The truth is, this man had accomplished a great deal in his life, and had I faced the same obstacles, I doubt I would have gotten anywhere close to his success. It was at that realization that I came to understand, a bit, why he’d lashed out at me, why his first instinct was to assume I was racist.

The next time we ran into one another, he made a point to shake my hand and apologize again, and I made a point of telling him — truthfully this time — that it was okay, I understood, and it was really no big deal.

A lot of years have passed since then, and I see the same fight going on today. People calling others racist, clamoring for their job to be taken away, demanding someone to be penalized for saying something others find offensive; people demanding their voice be heard over others, bullying and name calling and organizing group social media attacks against anyone who dares disagree with them.

Nothing’s going to improve in race relations — or in any relations — until we all stop being offended and angered and simply sit and talk. Put yourselves in the other person’s shoes. Think about why they are who they are, and accept when people are trying to change for the better, rather than simply slamming the door on them because you found a few words offensive.

John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-415-4701.


By John Peters

[email protected]

John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-415-4701.

John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 336-415-4701.

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