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The elevator story

A racially-charged encounter seen through different eyes reveals worlds of difference.
By Special Review Commission

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As members of a commission appointed to look into contentious events at the 2005 General Assembly were interviewing witnesses and participants, they heard two very different accounts of a single event. In their interim report to the UUA board of trustees in January 2006 (see sidebar for a link to news coverage), the commission members shared both accounts in “The Elevator Story: A Metaphor,” which they offered for reflection on the complexities of racism and ageism. --The editors

Upon reviewing over 80 accounts of the events that took place in Fort Worth, the members of the commission came to a common understanding: that into every situation each of us brings a personal body of experience that affects the nature of our interactions. This is exemplified by what we refer to as “the elevator story.”

In this true occurrence, a woman of African descent recalls riding in a crowded elevator with several emotionally exhausted youth and young adults of color on the final night of General Assembly. Two of the youth present had just been involved in a near-altercation with a white female minister outside of the closing ceremony. The elevator stops and as the doors open, she hears a white woman yelling at the youth of color in the elevator, “If you people really want to be antiracist, you will get off the elevator now and allow this poor man to get on.” The woman of African descent peers outside the doors and observes that the poor man in question is an older, black hotel employee with a food cart. When she looks at him, she reads shame and embarrassment on his face. Meanwhile, the white woman has boarded the elevator. The woman of African descent remembers a flood of emotion. “In his eyes,” she said, “I saw me.” And she wondered, “What was I doing with rude, insensitive white people so far removed from his world, my roots?” This episode reminded her of many of the negative, race-based encounters she’d experienced within the UU community over the past 15 years. She questioned why she was a part of this faith community, but “I stayed on that elevator. I stood my ground . . . I belonged on that elevator, too.” Soon after she learned that the white woman was a UU minister, which increased her discomfort.

The white UU minister recounts the same event. She had heard only that the dance had been canceled due to incidents of racism and the youth community feeling “broken.” Leaving the ballroom, she came upon an older, black hotel employee waiting at the elevator doors with a food service cart. An elevator arrived, and a dozen YRUU [Young Religious Unitarian Universalist] youth hurried past him to fill it. This happened twice as she watched. The man told her that he’d been waiting for some time as this scenario repeated itself. The third time the elevator arrived, and youth rushed to enter, she interrupted to ask if they would step out and let the man in. She recalls that the youth “were screaming at me that their world was broken.” She told them that if they were concerned about racism, they would care about this man. She reminded them that everyone at General Assembly was privileged, and urged them to look after the hotel staff. After boarding the elevator, she and the youth continued to dialogue until an adult woman of color said to her, “You need to stop now and go with your white community and talk about this.” This incident left her shaken. She was accustomed to speaking out for the underdog, she said. Although she too had attended the closing ceremony, “I had no clue what had happened with the youth or what I had gotten into.” She described this incident as “one of the more unpleasant experiences in my entire life.”

The story of the elevator demonstrates the vastly different lenses through which two women viewed the same event. While race played a factor, so had encounters immediately preceding this one, and all the experiences associated with being an adult, a parent, a woman, a person of color, a white person, a person of authority, and so on. The commission views the elevator story as a metaphor for many of the stories we were privy to during this investigation.

It is our conclusion that a vital part of the effort to become a more whole and loving community involves listening to and sharing our honest perspectives--not to determine who is “right” and who is “wrong,” but to identify where it is that we have attempted to communicate with one another and simply failed. The good news is that we are reaching out and striving to connect. Let us be kind to each other, and try again--and again, and again. Ours is a continuing story.

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