Emotional Health

Becoming “Woke” at 65

Of course, once you do get a foot on the ladder of success, more carpeted steps are laid out for you, and even if you screw up, you are more likely to land on your feet. Laid off? You still have plenty of connections to help you find another job. Addicted? Your insurance, or your family, can foot the bill for rehab. Indicted? You know a good lawyer, and can afford to hire him or her. Sick? You can get good treatment and can choose the best doctors. Fired? Here’s your exit package or “golden parachute.”

For minorities, even great success doesn’t smooth the way. In 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for trying to enter his own home. His front door jammed, so he and his driver tried to force it open, and a neighbor reported a burglary in progress. In the ensuing confrontation, Gates was charged with disorderly conduct when he protested being thwarted from entering his own house.

Just a few days later, I witnessed a stunning contrast. Locked out of our apartment, my husband, who in his youth used to climb trees regularly as a tree surgeon, swung up the fire escape and through an open window. I watched, aware of the Gates incident, as none of the passersby gave it a second thought, even though he was dressed pretty much like the average burglar—dungarees, dark hoodie, etc.—much less elegantly than Dr. Gates himself had been. But he is white rather than African American. Though I can’t prove it, I am certain that a black man who did the same thing would have attracted attention—and a call to the police.

I have never had to worry that my husband or a son will be arrested unfairly, while for many families that is a constant concern. In the three times I have been pulled over for a traffic violation, twice I was let off with a warning, even though I was technically guilty all three times. I wasn’t unhappy about that, but I am more aware now than ever of others’ experience is one of persistent and recurring unfairness.

Fate can be unkind, and my family has its share of illness and other misfortunes. But squalls and tempests have been the exception and smooth sailing has been the rule. Being white and privileged have helped insure calm waters. I have come to believe that those of us who have good fortune should be grateful and have an obligation to appreciate it. It is an insult to the vast numbers of people who aren’t this lucky for those like me to be unhappy if we can help it.

I recognize that we all lose perspective, and, in the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “Everyone’s pain is like gas in a bottle—it fills the whole bottle.” But glass is transparent, and while we may not be able to escape our pain, we can also see through to outside and see what others are going through. And that should remind us to appreciate of all the opportunities we do have to live meaningful lives—and to try make things better for others.


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  • Dr. Pat February 7, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Dear Dr. Ford,
    Thank you for this thoughtful essay. A close friend who is black told me years ago that she would never get into a car to drive without double checking that the car registration was uptodate, that the insurance card for the car was uptodate and that she had her driver’s license and another photo ID with her in her wallet. She never carried any medication with her because she was afraid that she would be pulled over and the medication would be deemed “illegal”.
    This year I supported the amazing Jahana Hayes, who became Connecticut’s first black woman elected to Congress. She is the U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 5th congressional district where I live. I supported Antonio Delgado who won the race to become the member of the United States House of Representatives from New York’s 19th congressional district. He is a black man who has the distinctions of being a Rhodes scholar and graduate from Harvard Law School and still had a very tough race against a white conservative candidate supported by the President. These are steps too small to mention but Dr. Ford’s post reminds me of how little I do and how much there is to be done, though nothing can erase the past. We must have zero tolerance for racist remarks and racist past behavior and work to support the election of those who will work to change institutionalized racist policies. But, Dr. Ford has given each of the opportunity, again, to be aware.

  • Karen Cox February 7, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Thank you, Dr. Ford, for saying so elequently what I believe about white privlige. We, as white Americans, need to support affirmative action which would in some very small measure mitigate this phenomenon. Sincerely, Karen McLeod Cox