If anyone can speak about discrimination and racism, it’s a woman who’s mother is black and father is white, both of whom were immigrants to this country. Tonight, I heard Soledad O’Brien (CNN anchor and special correspondent) speak about her life, her experiences as a journalist and her perspectives about racism from her unique vantage point. She had several wonderful stories, quips and insights. One of the most memorable was of her mother who taught at O’Brien’s former high school, which was essentially all white. One day when O’Brien was in college she went to pick her mother up after work. They walked toward the office and saw three administrators (all white men) talking to a young black male student. Her mother slowed down.
“Come on,” O’Brien urged her mother. “Let’s go.” Her mother stopped and said, “Oh no…we’re going to just stand here a minute.” The men saw her and said, “It’s okay, Mrs. O’Brien. We’ve got this handled.” But her mother refused to move. “That’s okay. I’m just going to stand here,” she replied. And that’s what she did, all five foot two of her. A black woman with a macrame handbag (handmade by one of the many O’Brien siblings) just stood there silently watching these three white men and this young black boy. Nobody wanted to be there. It was awkward, she said.
However, O’Brien was struck with the way the power shifted in that moment. Her mother’s actions said “I’m here to be a witness.” It was as if she was saying to the boy, “I’m here to be a witness to what happens to you.” And to the men, “I’m here to be a witness to what happens with this boy.” It ended with the principal saying uncomfortably, “Dont’ let me catch you running in these halls again,” and with that, everyone dispersed.
Later in the talk, O’Brien quoted the Italian poet Dante. “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” In essence, to do nothing is the greatest injustice of all. After her presentation, an audience member asked her how she keeps from being overwhelmed with the amount of need in the world, the amount of injustice and the sheer complexity of trying to make a difference. She answered simply. Do something. Do what you can, where you can, no matter how small it may seem. With your actions, say to someone, “I will stand with you. I will be a witness.”