How to See Beyond the Surface

By:

Teacher and students

I made a quick trip to New York this month, my first time in the city in 20 months. My business took me to the financial district, a place that has changed immeasurably since my first summer job there when I was in high school. Then, the Wall Street area was all offices, alive during the week, dead and deserted on the weekends, and dominated by white men either in suits or in construction gear. As a white female teenager, I often felt out of place and vulnerable. I was too young, and an easy target for the brokers and the construction workers who gathered outside buildings at lunchtime and entertained themselves by catcalling the women passing by.  

This week, decades later, the area is a mix of residences, schools and offices, and the streets teem with a myriad diversity of people, a microcosm of humanity bundled against the chill of early autumn. Men and women scoot by on e-bikes, delivering food. Brown, Black and white people are out pushing strollers.  Young people hurry to school, jobs, shops, parks, unafraid – the catcalling I remembered so vividly just not a thing anymore. There are far fewer people in suits, but those dressed for business are just as likely to be people of color – and women – as they are to be white men. No one draws attention, because everyone belongs. 

It felt good.  

The visit was short, though, and I had to fly home. My Uber driver dropped me off at La Guardia Airport’s Terminal C, with plenty of time to make my flight. Good thing, too, because my boarding pass informed me that I needed to be at Terminal D.  

In between Terminals C and D is a vast construction site. Workers at LaGuardia Airport are building a new airport, with brand-new terminals, parking garages, and roadways, even as the old one continues to operate and serve thousands of passengers each day. I wondered what it would take to thread my way to Terminal D.  

A quick conference with a Sky Cap yielded the directions – down an elevator, out the door and follow the path. It would be a 5-minute walk along a fenced corridor designed to separate pedestrians from the ongoing construction.  

About halfway along, an opening in the fence allowed heavy equipment to pass between the main roadway and the open construction site. I was pleased to see that the construction industry had changed, too, with time. During my summer on Wall Street, the men building the new office buildings were all white. The La Guardia site’s workers were still mainly male, but most were people of color. One construction worker – hard hat, reflective vest, steel tipped boots, tool belt – stood holding a stop sign to hold back any incoming trucks. A few other workers stood by on the pedestrian path looking towards the site.  

I turned to look at the site myself and saw that a huge steel beam – easily 30 or 40 feet long and three feet deep – was on the move, suspended by chains about ten feel above the ground. I thought about the difficult task of working an active construction site in such proximity to so many pedestrians, and about the daunting task of keeping an airport open while rebuilding it.  

And that’s when I heard the men walking behind me. Their conversation killed the good feelings I’d had.  

“No wonder this is so expensive. Three guys to hold a stop sign.” 

[Only one was holding a stop sign.] 

“That’s always the way it is.” 

[It isn’t even the way it is here.] 

“Easy job.” 

[On your feet all day, in all kinds of weather?] 

“And the way they rack up the overtime.” 

As the path curved, I glanced over my back to see the speakers, three white men I guessed to be in their 40s, all wheeling travel golf bags.  

Inwardly, I sighed, and wondered why it’s so hard to imagine other people’s lives. That’s what CARE Principle #1 calls for – that we recognize the humanity of all people, treat them with dignity, and imagine, if we can, what it is to walk in their shoes.  

I thought about the men and the fact that their behavior, and their skill at erasing the humanity of other people, was learned.  

We must change that, and ensure that today’s children and young people learn something different: to develop empathy for other human beings, recognize the systems at work, and habitually ask a simple question when confronted by an unproven assumption: “Really? Are you sure?” 

One of the main ways children learn to affirm the humanity and dignity of other people is by watching educators who model the practice. Antiracist teaching means seeing each child, knowing their circumstances, and embracing their potential. Antiracist teachers don’t strip groups of people of their humanity when those groups are the subjects of curriculum, either. At every turn, antiracist educators seek to recognize and celebrate the rich complexity of human experience.  

If those golf guys had experienced educators like that throughout their schooling, maybe the conversation would have been different, something like this:  

Maybe the first one would still say, “No wonder this is so expensive. Three guys to hold a stop sign.” 

And his buddy would respond, “I don’t know what they make but I’m sure that some of these guys are starting out at minimum wage.” 

Maybe the third would add, “Hard job. It must be brutal out here in the winter.” 

And the second would say, “They’re standing around because they cleared the site while that I-beam was moving.” 

And maybe the first would connect to his own past and say, “My grandfather worked construction. He was a tough guy, strong as a mule, but wanted better for his kids.” 

And his friend would say, “I bet that’s what those guys want, too.” 

As for me, I want better for all of us.