His name was Clyde. He stood a good head and a half taller than me, an African American man probably about the same age as me. We had agreed to be conversation partners at a meeting held by the ACLU for the Gwinnett community and the Gwinnett County Police Department. This, we would learn, was the first of many meetings that the ACLU had agreed to facilitate for building better relations between the communities of Gwinnett county and its police department.
We were asked to spend 1 minute describing to our conversation partner something about which we are passionate. Clyde said that he was passionate about being seen. He then told me about a cultural competency meeting he had gone to at an Atlanta area university. He went into the building and entered the elevator. Before the door closed, a white woman approached the elevator and saw him. She became very dramatic about not wanting to get on the elevator. He was disturbed by that, but not nearly so much as when he walked into the conference room and saw that the same woman was there to attend the meeting on cultural competency as well. At one of the breaks, he approached the woman and said that it was nice to see her again. She was polite and asked if they knew each other. He said: well, I was the man on the elevator this morning that you didn’t want to get into. He said that she became embarrassed and apologized to him.
He wants to be seen. For who he is. As a real person.
Later in the meeting at the ACLU conference room, Clyde and I talked some more. He said that he felt like I did see him. That was good to know. I hoped that was true about me, but the other truth about me is that at times in my life I have acted like the woman at the elevator, dodging People of Color out of some fear that had been instilled in me about “those people.”
Clyde told me that when he encounters people, he finds that they either show up as their true selves or as “the representative.” I asked him about that. The “representative” is what we put forward as the proxy for our true selves–masks, fronts, pretend or even “best” faces–almost always out of some fear or attempt to be what we think others want us to be. These are not our true selves. These are our “representatives.”
This was a deeply helpful insight. As I enter into any situation or conversation with other human beings, am I being my true self or am I showing up as my representative? Clyde taught me another lesson. He said that when he encounters a representative, he just thinks in his head: Okay, this is your representative. Maybe in a day or a week or a month you will show me who you really are. A very good guide for me, this man, Clyde.