Can't We All Get Along?
Rodney King’s reticent question has been both praised and ridiculed over the past twenty years. By his own admission, many of the choices he made in his life did not deserve praise, but the ridicule drawn by his famously halting (and now haunting) question only mirrored the hatefulness of the beating he took in 1991.
Apologies always seemed the best way to begin getting along. When discussing cultural consideration, I urge clinicians and educators to apologize if their behavior or attitude offends a client or a student. Curiously, this has created quite a few heated discussions, especially when I suggest we apologize if we are perceived as racist. It seems that was the most important thing to Rodney King. He wanted an apology from the police and he was apologetic for his community’s response to the violence perpetrated against him. Rodney seemed to know on some fundamental level that violence only begets violence and someone had to be the first to say “I’m sorry.”
I was in a small local store last week, my monthly trek for inexpensive paper products and cleaning supplies. I live in a very integrated neighborhood though I am often the only person in this store who is not of color. So it was last week.
I was in the checkout line and like many other moments in my life, my debit card didn’t swipe or the bar code on the item I chose was missing, or I took the last of a package with no price tag. I can’t recall why, but I caused a back log. The young man at the counter asked a young woman to get a price check. She had a difficult time finding the item on the shelves. The older gentleman behind me was clearly frustrated with both of them. I apologized, because I did, after all, cause the mess. He would not hear of it however, and his mumbled frustration turned angry and rose in volume. The young checker in turn grew angry and spouted off something (in my opinion) rude. After a few uncomfortable minutes of this, I asked the cashier if he knew the other man. They both looked at me quizzically and the cashier said an awkward but emphatic, “no.”
It is no secret that I have been a social worker for a long time, much of that time treating high-risk families, young folks with behavior disorders and older folks with anger issues. Neither is it a secret that I cannot stay still in the midst of chaos nor am I generally daunted by societal mores. I suggested to the young man it was not respectful to talk that way to either customer or elder. I also suggested to the older man that it was not the cashier’s fault that my item was not priced and he was trying to remedy that. I again apologized for causing the delay. The cashier also gave a half-hearted apology.
At this point, the older gentleman said something that gave me pause for thought. Looking squarely at the younger man, he said, “No. Nuh huh. Sorry is for getting out of things.”
The other clerk came with the price, the cashier finished ringing up my purchases, and I was done with my monthly trek to the general family dollar deal store. The older man had only two things to buy and was out of the store before I got to my car. He had waited in line, though I had offered to let him go ahead of me. He had become angry at the younger Black store clerks for what he perceived as their negligence. If he was perturbed with me, he did not indicate it. But as much as I wanted to engage him in the parking lot and ask if he would talk with me about his perception of apologies, I did not. I would have been intruding upon a clear and comfortable space. Reducing that clarity to a cerebral examination of the importance of apologies would have been as rude as the curt comments made by the cashier.
I still think apologies are important. They begin a dialogue. Sometimes apologies are all we have. But the man at the local store brought a depth to my interpretation I did not have before. He seemed to be saying that apologies are excuses. That they serve the needs of those who are giving more than those receiving and I see his point.
But where do we begin to get along? When do we stop the overt vitriol which has re-surfaced with the election of the first African American president? When do we begin to apologize for the verbal beatings and political stonewalling inflicted upon him every day simply for being Black in America, for having the audacity of hope?
Rodney King died twenty years after his beating on the streets of LA, just after his memoir had been published. The Riot Within is a book about redemption but was classified by Amazon as a criminal biography. An accidental civil rights symbol, Rodney King’s legacy was once again drowned by the archetype of the nameless but dangerous Black man.
We owe him an apology.