With the backdrop of the empty 52,000 seat Sun Bowl behind me, I strolled up the stadium steps to sit with my new teammates. To the right of the aisle were one group of players. To the left, another. I paused. It struck me. The two groups weren’t organized by position, not by offense or defense, not by any other sensible segregation.

White folks were on one side. Black folks on the other.

Frankly, I was shocked. I thought this stuff died in the 60′s. I didn’t really know anyone, so I sat with the black folks out of principle. Some strange looks, and then the conversation, banter, and the making fun of each other continued.

I went on to learn that some of my white teammates had attended Ku Klux Klan meetings as kids. Some of my black teammates openly shared a general dislike for white people. At the core of it all was likely ignorance, pain, and often, fear.

To be fair to my teammates and coaches, race really didn’t factor in too much during my time at UTEP (early/mid 90s). We played together, practiced together, fought together, and the color of people’s skin didn’t really matter much at all. I still have good relationships with many of my teammates and skin color never crosses my mind at all when interacting with them. We share a common thread – a common history and that trumps anything else. I don’t want to paint that environment as totally segregated because it wasn’t. But that initial impression of separation stuck with me.

The truth is, in retrospect, I didn’t know at that time if racism was still alive. I had grown up in white suburban town in Southern California. We didn’t really have to wrestle with the issue of race, especially because 75% of my school was white. But, I did attend a portion of elementary school in downtown Oxnard, a much more racially diverse place. I ran with a group of 4 friends. One was Hispanic. One was half black, half Korean. One was half black, half native American. Two of us were white. It didn’t matter. I was genuinely under the impression that the issue had all but died decades before.

Yesterday, Kristen Howerton brought to my attention the Twitter hashtag #ifiwereapoorblackkid – started as a response to a seemingly well meaning Gene Marks article on Forbes titled “If I were a poor black kid”

The twitter hashtag has a some hilarious responses. The blogosphere responded with some very well articulated rebuttals, among them the following. I encourage you to read them all.

Check out “If I were a wealthy white suburbanite” and “If I were the middle class white guy Gene Marks”.

My time at the University of Texas at El Paso was an era of growth for me in many ways. Our football team wasn’t all that good. Sometimes we practiced in 120F plus weather. But, perhaps the greatest lessons for me came as a result of being the minority.

As open and interested as I had always been to different races, cultures and belief systems, I had always been part of the majority. At UTEP, I was the minority. Over 65% of the student population was Hispanic. Spanish was spoken in the halls of the business administration building almost as much as English. When I first showed up to play football, I was the only white scholarship defensive back. Even my position coach was black. My level of understanding changed. My level of empathy changed. For the first time, I understood, just a little bit, what it was like to be “the minority”.

In a twist of irony, this is the same school that had Don Haskins do the unthinkable in 1966 as he led the Miners to an upset of Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats. The even bigger story is that Haskins had been the first coach to start five African Americans against the all white Wildcat team. That story has been immortalized in the movie, Glory Road.

Since then, I’ve had the chance to spend time in more than 40 countries, many of them in the developing world. I’ve had the privilege and honor to help some NGOs make a difference in some pretty marginalized areas of the planet. Time and time again, through my own experiences, and watching those of others, those who went to help and thought they had the answers often learned and gained more than they gave and taught.

There is a meaningful underlying lesson in the recent exchange between Mr. Marks and those responding to “If I were a poor black kid”.

If we were to collectively stop the cycle of ignorance, hate, stereotypes, judgement, we would all be better off. The issue isn’t constrained to black and white here in the US. It’s a global issue that transcends race, and extends to culture, geography, socioeconomic differences, and often centuries old barriers.

I won’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t. These are not simple problems to solve. There are people who have nobly dedicated their entire lives to eradicating poverty of all types (financial, physical, spiritual, educational, relational, etc.), to stopping the negative cycles perpetuated by decades, and sometimes centuries, of inertia. But I do believe each of us has a choice in the way that we think, in the way that we speak, and in the way that we interact within our own communities, and when we intersect from those from other people and communities less familiar to us.

This past March, I attended TEDx Newport Beach, and watched JR, a graffiti artist from France tell his story of how he had used his art to break down boundaries in some of the most volatile places on the planet. It’s an amazing story about the human condition, and how one guy with a crazy idea is literally using creativity to break down barriers. Watch it below.

Change and unity will only come about if each of us seek to understand, and make a decision whether we want to build bridges of understanding, or further and perpetuate the centuries old divides, to our collective detriment.

  • http://twitter.com/wimrampen/status/147015329875374080 Wim Rampen

    If we were to stop the cycle… http://t.co/4ex28YX7 MUST READ by @brianvellmure