On race, moving from fear to friendliness

President Barack Obama's unusually personal and frank recollection this past week of being greeted by the click of car door locks while crossing the street set off a "click" of recognition among blacks and whites alike. I know my own hand made that reflexive move for the door lock too many times before my mind considered the impact of my actions as a white woman on the feelings of a young black man.

Once I made this connection, I stopped reaching for the locks. When traveling by foot, I now make an effort to catch the eyes of black men walking toward me to say, "Good morning," or "Good evening." The worst that happens in these encounters is that I am ignored. Most often, I receive a brief look of surprise and a polite greeting.

What felt risky at first has become a personal practice. It reminds me that each of us has the choice and the power to heal the effects of racial injustice in America. We do not have to wait for policymakers and courts to do the right thing. From small and fleeting decisions such as whom we speak with on the street, to bigger questions of who we do business with in the workplace, to profound and longer-lasting choices about where we live or send our children to school, each of us makes hundreds of choices that can enhance the experiences of individuals and communities.

In a time when social bridge building is greatly needed, we have lost much of our capacity for public friendliness. Too often, we stay in our lanes, eyes averted, fearing involvement — one of us reluctant to risk our personal safety, the other reluctant to risk being misunderstood. Worse yet, with each missed opportunity for connection, we double down on our fears.

For me, the first step out of this counterproductive cycle was a decision to stop seeing a statistic when I approached a black man on the street and begin seeing an individual coming from somewhere and going somewhere. This new lens shifted my perspective from caution to curiosity. These street conversations are rarely longer than "Good afternoon," or "How are you doing?" However, as I go on my way, I often continue to think about the person I have just spoken with, wonder about his plans and hopes for the day, and wish him well.

On a larger scale, we are fortunate in Baltimore to have many attractive public spaces and events that serve as a modern-day town commons. These places and experiences offer rich opportunities to practice public friendliness. In just the past week, I have enjoyed making new acquaintances while buying produce at the Wednesday Druid Hill Park Farmers' Market and sweltering through Artscape while observing how people of diverse ages and backgrounds have fun together. The city's Inner Harbor, other public markets and parks, schools and libraries invite us to have a "commons" experience all over Baltimore. The infrastructure exists. It is up to us as individuals and communities to show up and engage in the small ways that enrich us all.

Lisa Akchin is an associate vice president at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. Her email is akchin@umbc.edu.

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