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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Taking the high road

In preparation for the interview process for a paid or volunteer position, my firefighting class held mock oral interviews in last week's class. One of the questions that was asked of us was how we dealt with racial diversity. The story that my classmate Sam, an African American man, recited in response was one of the most uplifting and encouraging tales I have heard in a long time.

While earning his degree, Sam took a college class that was centered around racial issues. One particular student, who freely admitted that he was born and raised in the South, had some markedly negative opinions about people of other races, including African Americans. The other attendees were quite ruthless with this student as a result of his declarations. He was the target of a number of verbal attacks for his views.

Sam, being a Black man, had every right and reason to be angry at this person for his intolerant opinions. He would have been completely justified in feeling resentful and contemptuous towards this student, and easily could have joined in with the others in their harsh rebuttals. Instead, one day after class, Sam approached this man with a question. He asked him,

"What do you call a Black pilot ?"

The student shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know".

Sam answered, "A pilot."

The student, initially stunned at the answer, hesitated. Slowly, he cracked a smile, then chuckled out loud. A pilot ! That's it ! Nothing more than a pilot, regardless of his skin color. The two broke out in hearty laughter.

This shared experience broke down the barriers between them, and opened the door to a revolution of sorts in this student's perception. Over the ensuing few weeks, the class explored the topics and issues at hand, this time with open minds and a true, honest desire to learn and to appreciate one other. After the semester was over, this student was a better person; more informed, more open, more respectful of those around him. And so was the rest of the class.

I have always said that one can educate the ignorant, but one cannot change the mind of a bigot. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to enlighten certain people in my life about racial sensitivity and stereotyping, and have been met with nothing but backlash. When ignorance is coupled with stubborn superiority, haughty arrogance, and complete unwillingness to accept anything that deviates even slightly from one's own opinions, any contrary statements are likely to fall on deaf ears.

However, in this case, the student in question was prepared to explore views that did not necessarily match with those he had grown up with. This was evident in the fact that he took the initiative to sign up for the class. His openness to new ideas, and willingness to discuss the issues, were the key to his new appreciation of diversity.

By being the bigger person, Sam helped build a culture of respect and fairness amongst his classmates. It would have been so easy for him to succumb to the primal, human instinct for revenge. Instead, he rose above the intolerance, and encouraged, in a positive way, a revolution in this student's mind. This in turn opened the door to a newfound understanding for all those who attended the class.

In this society, infused with pride, arrogance and retribution, taking the high road is a difficult thing to do. But in some cases, like this one, it is the best thing to do.

It is people like Sam who truly make this world a better place - one human being at a time.

1 Comments:

Blogger Julie said...

What a great story. Sam sounds like an amazing man. We need more people like that in this world.

May 20, 2005 at 6:04:00 AM PDT  

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