After boarding a plane a few weeks ago that would take me home to Sioux Falls, S.D., a tall, lean African American man in his early 60’s sat down next to me. As we got settled, I asked him if Sioux Falls was home. He told me it wasn’t, but that he traveled there every month for work. I asked him what kind of work did he do? It turns out he is a physician that treats some of the most challenging patients in the hospital. He travels to Sioux Falls monthly, works for a week and then flies back home.

We talked about Sioux Falls. He was amazed by all that was happening in our bustling, small city. He said that the we “punch higher than our weight.” I had never heard that phrase before, but I laughed. That’s how I feel about the place too.

He went on to say Sioux Falls seemed like an unusually philanthropic community. He was impressed and said that this generosity made it a special place. He has lived and worked in many cities and said that he wouldn’t be interested in living in most of them, but Sioux Falls was a place he might consider. What a compliment for Sioux Falls.

We continued to chat and the soft-spoken, friendly man made me laugh. He was a ray of sunshine that made my travel day brighter.

The Police Stopped Him

When my seat mate began coming to Sioux Falls a year or two ago, he used to stay in a busy area that sits next to to the Big Sioux River that wraps itself around town. I’ve stayed at this hotel many times and asked him how he liked it. He said that it was great, but while there he had been stopped by the police.

What?! This smart, intelligent, funny, accomplished man, stopped by the police? How could this be? I asked him to tell me more.

One day, he was walking near his hotel, getting some fresh air and exercise. I’ve spent many hours walking and running in this area myself. The river, the geese, and the dramatic big sky are beautiful.

As he walked, he noticed a police car drive by. Then he noticed another one. He started to wonder what was going on. Before long, both of the cars pulled up beside him. They asked him what he was doing. He told them that he was getting some exercise. They said that they had received a call about somebody suspicious walking in the area that matched his description. He was incredulous. He was 63 years old, did they really think he was a threat?

He explained who he was and what he did in town. The officers apologized and moved on.

I Was Shocked

I looked at this great guy and was shocked. This was his reality? Despite all of his accomplishments, he was judged by the color of his skin? It came down to just that – a quick glance by a stranger who thought he might be a threat and then a phone call to the police.  It must have felt humiliating.

I looked into his eyes and told him that I was sorry. He said that he had been stopped by law enforcement in every city that he’s lived. He seemed to grudgingly accept that this was just the way it was. I thought how unsettling it would feel to be judged as a threat because of my gender and skin color, things I did not choose and could do nothing about.

We Evolved to be Suspicious

I understand that we humans evolved to be suspicious of those that don’t look like us. Thousands of years ago, strangers could be a threat to our clan and could endanger our existence. We had reason to be wary. That leeriness of others is still hard wired in us today. But this fear also hurts innocent people.

Logically, this man’s story shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. In the past few years, “Black Lives Matter” and other news stories have repeatedly talked about the unfair treatment of African American men by the police. However, I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t given the issue the attention it deserves. I also think it was easy for me to assume that it applied to African Americans elsewhere, but not in my community. (I know. This is naïve and unexamined thinking.)

I have to admit that I don’t focus on many horrific issues in the world because they are overwhelming and dreadfully sad. These include child pornography, the slaughtering of billions of animals every year, climate change, and racism. But hearing this man’s story made it real. I am now curious and want to learn about it.

Expanding My Horizons

On this flight, I was reminded that if I talk to people different from me, non-whites, that might change my perspective on the topic of race.  My conversation with my new acquaintance made me think about what it might be like to be an African American man in Sioux Falls, something I had never done before. And if an affluent, highly educated African American man is treated with suspicion, we have a problem.

When I can, I’m going to continue talking to people of other races. I want to learn more about what their lives are like and how they feel they’ve been impacted by racism.

I’m also interested in learning more about the topic. I’ve noticed that now when I’m reading the newspaper, I’m drawn to articles about race that I would have skipped over in the past. These aren’t huge changes, but it’s a start.

Of course, there are no easy answers here. But there’s something about knowing a person that changes everything. It softens us and hopefully makes us more curious. And that’s a good thing. We could use more of that in the world today.

P.S. Yesterday, as I was getting ready to post this entry, I coincidentally ran into the same man, on the same flight, to Sioux Falls! I learned his name, told him about my drafted post, and got his email address. I was delighted to see him and wanted him to know that his honest sharing with me had made an impact. Our running into each other felt like God was smiling.