"We" versus "I" - A World View From The Hood

When you grow up broke, you really never know that you are broke.  Or better yet,  how broke you are. You just figure out ways to feel less and less broke. It is all about perspective and creative imagination so you don’t get so discouraged when you are young.

When I was growing up in Kansas City (the Missouri side) we were broke. And as far as I could tell, we were not going to get get any richer. My friend Daniel and I played this game. Maybe you’ve played a variation of it. We would sit outside and one of us would say “man, if I find a nickel I’m gonna get us some candy.” Then, the other one would say the same thing, but would bump it up from a nickel to a dime. We would go back and forth like this, raising the amount until our imaginary money caused us to pretend that we were now buying all the candy in the store. What was crazy is that we would get into it so much that we started looking on the ground, all around the trash and in the alley, for whatever we could find  … a quarter, dime, penny or any coin we could find. Often the afternoon ended up that we would get enough change so that we could spilt something.

What I didn’t realize at that time was I was learning a life lesson that “I should never let the things that I want make me forget the things I have!” We grew up under an unwritten covenant of “we.” It was an always “we and us” mantra versus “them or I.” We believed that if we had a nickel,  we were not going to let anyone miss out on that nickel if we could help it.  In a contextualized  world view, the “we are for us” mindset could play out something like this: Before you eat, you look around to see who isn’t eating. And, you find a way to feed them too.

Because of this, I never felt alone growing up in the hood, although there was enough depravity around me where it could have been easy to give in to that feeling of isolation. We didn’t have much. And even though Daniel and I were always looking for spare change in the street, we had us.

In reality, I never knew that I was poor, broke and or different until I attended a high school comprised primarily of white, middle and upper-students. In the four years I attended, I was the only person of color. While classmates drove cars to school that their parents had purchased for them, I took four different busses to get there. While classmates were driving to games and parties after school, I was working there to help cover the cost of tuition. My world in the hood was entirely different from the world in and around school. Separated by 90 minutes and multiple bus stops. It was the first time I felt like I was in another world. I felt different. I felt “them or I” more than I felt “we and us.”

As I grew at the school and connected with a few guys, we became good friends (as we were still working on race issues). Despite best intentions,  I still felt out of the loop with from the conversations that never were about “finding a quarter on the alley” but about overseas summer vacations or which car they were getting then they turned 16. I felt so out of place because I had no context in this new world.  And they had no context for mine. The balancing act I had to play was living in one world that celebrated “we” while the other world, mostly white and wealthy, celebrated “I.”

What happens when a kid from the hood enters into the world of the privileged?

The core reality I felt was there is something wrong with me. I was out of place and unworthy because I could not enter any conversations with my peers because we both were disconnected from our respective worlds. Therefore, seeking to minimize these feelings and to fit in as broke black kid from the hood, manipulation and feelings of anger arose coupled with resentment, Despite my best efforts to connect, I was always coming up short.

The hardest part for me was when the people I started to connect with constantly reminded me that I was poor just from simple often innocent statements like “man how many buses do you take to get home?” Or, “I’m sorry Phil,  my dad said I can’t take you into the city because he doesn’t want me going down there.” Or, “Phil how long will it take you to get to my house, I know you are on the bus.”

Dating was impossible because most of the girl’s parents didn’t want their white daughter going out with a black boy. And the few who were seemingly open to it would have a bunch of stipulations that implied  “I don’t want her going out with a black boy.”

My hood worldview, living from the mindset of “we” clashed as I entered this new, all white, wealthy, world view of “I.” As a man of color, seeking to navigate this caused lasting damage in my life. I started to notice how I chose to live less authentically around white men/women because of I was tired of battling the two mindsets. I wanted to fit in all of the boxes, while I was really denying who I was for fear of judgment.

Then what I did what many people of color can attest to. I’d huddle up with a bunch of other people of color somewhere and say “do you believe what that white guy just said?” Often these conversations are in secret because folks of color are tired of feeling that we have to be the teacher or instigator of all things “racial,” while no one else seems to recognize or address the racial tension in the room.

So, the rub is that we’re not being authentic. And, because we’re not, the folks we’re hoping to connect with can’t be authentic, either. Although we’d like to pretend it is a “we and us” dynamic, its really a “them and I” dynamic at its core.

The good news is that through God’s grace, we can change our perspective. Here’s how:

  • If you have a relationship with a person of color, ask them how much of their authentic self is being held back and seek to understand why.
  • If they’re willing to share that with you, seeking to listen and learn if they, too see life through the lens of “We” or an “I” world view. Ask which world view has been lived out most in their life.
  • Reflect upon your own world view and ask which one you have been most comfortable living in.

Life in the hood taught me valuable lessons that I became more and more aware of as an adult. The courage to engage these lessons is a challenging road toward equality with those who are not from the hood in order to build bridges that can help us to see the value within each other. The world is waiting.

By Phil Jackson

Phil completed his initial Crucible Project weekend in November 2011. For nearly 30 years, his passion has been to bring the life-changing message of Jesus Christ to young men, such as in Chicago’s north Lawndale neighborhood. He has served as a youth pastor, associate pastor and lead pastor of Lawndale area churches in addition to founder and executive director of The Firehouse Community Art Center. He also is co-author of The Hip-Hop Church, the Urban Devotional Bible and is a contributing writer for A Heart for the Community: New Models for Urban and Suburban Ministry.

Photo Credit: Yorkshire Photo Walks via Creative Commons