My friend was sitting with his head bowed toward his lap. He could have been reading or praying. I touched his shoulder gently and his eyes lit up in greeting. I knelt down beside him, lowered my mask, and looked into his dark face. “I just want to say that it’s a very confusing time for all of us right now.” I paused for the unrehearsed message. “But you’re my friend, and I felt the need to say I’m sorry for how you have likely suffered because of your skin color.”
He dropped his head, as if to gather his thoughts, and peeled off his own mask. Then he looked up and met my gaze with a very different emotion: one that was full of love and compassion for the awkwardness of the moment. He began slowly opening up his world to me, unveiling a perspective that I’d never considered, having looked at life through my white American lens.
As I focused intently on his words, I realized how few occasions we are given to share our true feelings with a non-judgmental listener; someone without an agenda, who genuinely wants to know our innermost thoughts.
My friend wrestled with his reply, perhaps forming an opinion as he heard himself speak. It was raw and beautiful. In many ways, it felt like a shared gift of healing: I received the honor of hearing his perspective and he received the gift of being heard.
As an author telling other people’s stories, I’ve been known to ask bold questions in order to better understand a topic, a story or a person. And many of my characters have told me that our conversations are cathartic. I do believe that people benefit from being listened to; knowing their story matters.
Many decades ago, a wise editor taught me that diversity is enriching, but it doesn’t just happen, it takes effort. Even if an article I was writing had nothing to do with race, and the reader may never know the shade of the person I was quoting, I needed to reach for perspectives beyond the easy chair to give it authenticity.
He was right. And I plan to keep reaching and continuing these conversations. Because I still believe their story matters.