What’s it like to be you?

The Classroom Window with Trevor Barton

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We were at a grocery store. I was walking up the aisle and he was walking down. We were doing something as simple as buying bread, yet we were living something as complex as being white and black in the days after the shootings in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights and Dallas. In that moment, as we looked eye to eye, our faces softened. We didn’t speak as we passed but as we stopped and reached out for bread I could hear a question pass between us: What’s it like to be you?

Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar and a professor at Harvard University, came up with a concept called “The Daily Me.” Within this concept, he explores and writes about the way we find and assimilate information to form and build opinions and beliefs. He argues that our technological society allows us to get information from many sources, so we can wake up every day and surround ourselves with information that only affirms the way we already see and act in the world and never challenges those ways of seeing and acting. If we are liberal, we surround ourselves with liberal perspectives. If we are conservative, we surround ourselves with conservative perspectives. If we see, hear or read anything that challenges those perspectives, we turn it off or close it up. We get our news from The Daily Me. There is no space to ask, “What do you think?” and listen thoughtfully to the response. There is only space to say, “This is what I think!” and walk away.

A friend of mine made an observation. “Most people who look like us, think like us, sound like us and act like us will focus on police lives in the aftermath of these shootings,” he said. “We’ll say we know good, honest police officers who serve and protect us, so we’ll put up pictures of badges and #alllivesmatter on our social media pages and we’ll completely ignore or look askance at the stories of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the #blacklivesmatter movement.”

“Do any of us know anyone who has been profiled or brutalized by the police?” he asked. “That is an important question. Most of us don’t. If we don’t, then the ‘not knowing’ is a problem because it means we have no contact, no relationship, no human connection with those who have. Without that human connection, we will never understand that there even is a problem and will never work to solve it.”

What’s it like to be you?

Naomi Shihab Nye is a writer who tries to help us ask that question to each other. She is the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, so she knows the walls that we can build to separate us from each other. She writes fiercely and tenderly to tear down those walls and build bridges that join us in our common humanity.

Listen to the first part of this poem, “Red Brocade,” from her 2002 work “19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East.”

Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

I often turn to the language of poetry to help me think deeply and act wisely in the world around me, so here is an ode I wrote for the black man I saw buying bread at the grocery store.

We stood together,
yet apart,
in the grocery store,
reaching out,
black hands, white hands,
for bread. 

We saw each other,
yet we didn’t.
We could have spoken,
but looking inward,
brown eyes, blue eyes,
we were quiet instead. 

Let’s sit down together
and eat bread
for three days,
at your house,
and at my house.
Your life matters to me. 

How is it to be
created equal,
yet treated unequally?
What’s it like to be you?
If we eat bread together,
then I may see.

To help my city become a better place for everyone, I commit myself to open my life to the “strangers” who appear at my door, those who are a different color than me, those who come from a different country than me, those who live in a different neighborhood than me, those who are a different sex than me, those who believe differently than me, those who have a different sexual orientation than me, those who are different from me.

I commit myself to be Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.

I commit myself to be an ode.

I commit myself to turn “The Daily Me” into “The Daily Us.”

What’s it like to be you?

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