Evolution of an Important Conversation

This column ran Tuesday, August 29, in the Manhattan Mercury.

Let’s start with a blinding flash of the obvious. I’m a 50-something white guy. Most people in my community and state look like me.   

I was a toddler when Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed out loud about a nation where freedom and justice would be color blind. As a white kid who came of age in the ‘70s in the middle of the country, that was enough for me. My parents believed in Dr. King’s dream, taught me to do the same and I was done thinking about it.     

Judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Done. Check.

Last fall, under the umbrella of a leadership development concern, I managed a statewide conversation in Wichita between communities of color and law enforcement. As a 50-something white guy, I’ll admit to a little trepidation about that work, but I owned my trepidation and did a lot of listening.

What I heard was those with skin color different than mine also believed in King’s dream, but they were facing uncertainty, fear and violence from cops. The Wichita gathering came on the heels of a spate of police-related shootings all over the U.S. in 2016. In listening, I heard that King’s character content judging argument had not yet fully taken hold and that those who look like me who rest on their laurels, shouldn’t, really.

Then came my involvement in the Manhattan High School Indians mascot issue. It happened inauspiciously, lunch with a friend who serves on the school board. Over Bring Down the House Salads at So Long in Aggieville, I complimented her on the board’s political tactic of kicking the can down the road by appointing a task force to provide them recommendations.

Her response, paraphrased: Oh yeah, wise guy? You’re on the task force. I coulda bailed, (Sorry, too busy… lots of important things to do…) but lately, my inclination has been to serve.

Our work produced four specific recommendations to the school board. Are they enough to put this issue to rest, once and for all? When I look back, and then forward, I tend to doubt it. A generation from now, there will be more people in our country, state and community, who don’t look like me, and because of that fact alone, will be more enlightened. Maybe by then, today’s guardrails will have expanded a few lanes.     

Oh yeah, wise guy? You're on the task force.

Oh yeah, wise guy? You're on the task force.

At its essence, the MHS mascot issue boils down to a group of human beings who find the status quo harmful and another group who feel an affinity toward it. I don’t know how you can split that baby. But my experience has taught me that meaningful public policy change only comes about after meaningful conversation. Draw your own conclusions as to whether that is happening in Manhattan.

As a 50-something white dude in the middle of the country with my recent life experience, I have come to more fully appreciate the concept of privilege. Going in, my knee-jerk was, who, me? I live King’s dream, I love everybody. I think maybe I missed the point. It’s less overt, more subtle, not as easy to even recognize when most of the people with whom I am surrounded look like me.

Charlottesville reaffirmed my belief that we have lofty expectations of our government in this conversation, whether it’s the President of the United States, or the local school board.   

People, communities, cultures and civilizations evolve. Ways of thinking about all that surrounds us become more informed. My experience growing up in this country and in Kansas has taught me, that despite stumbles and difficulties, all things eventually point toward truth and justice.

Once we know better, shouldn’t we do better?        

Until recently, the content of their character has been an effective yardstick for me, when it comes to sizing people up. For the rest of my life, there’ll be more to it. I hope I can transcend my parents’ dreams and that my imagination will be sufficiently open to understand the differences I have with others.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com