This piece was published on August 28, 2008 in the Pasadena Star News.
Thank you for not talking to me like a black man.
That statement of gratitude was said to me by Maurice Brown, an African-American man, more than fifteen years ago. At that time I was Manager of the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) for Los Angeles County, a program administered by the California Department of Aging. I was talking to Maurice about the possibility of his training a group of HICAP volunteers.
I was looking for someone who could help the Volunteer Counselors, most of whom were over the age of 65, in their peer counseling on Medicare, HMOs and supplemental insurance at senior citizen’s centers throughout Los Angeles County. Most of the volunteers were retired professionals who absorbed the complex, complicated Medicare information with relative ease.
The newly trained Volunteer Counselors arrived at their local senior center armed with written materials to help them convey information about Medicare. What they weren’t prepared for was the recent widow who arrived, still in shock and mourning, with a grocery bag full of unopened bills and Medicare claims. Many were women whose husbands had always paid the bills and they had no clue where to start. Some had no children or close family members to help. I hadn’t figured out how to teach the Volunteer Counselors how to deal with their client’s distraught emotional state, and I thought Maurice could.
During our telephone conversation, I was well aware that Maurice was African-American, but his race had no relevance to our business at hand so I didn’t take it into account. Apparently, Maurice had experienced it the other way around, he was an African-American first, and a professional trainer second.
Although his statement took me back for a moment, I told him that I was seeking his expertise in enhancing communication skills and that his being African-American was of no consequence to me. That he would thank me for seeing his skills and abilities before the color of his skin helped me to understand what minorities deal with on a daily basis.
I first met Maurice Brown at a quarterly meeting of HICAP Managers in Sacramento. When my fellow HICAP Managers and I met every three months, the Department of Aging staff presented a training session during our two-day meeting. As a trainer myself, I was always anxious to see another trainer in action and Maurice was one of the best.
Maurice served in the military with one of the guys who later joined the staff in Sacramento. Maurice got his experience in teaching communication styles while in the military and was hired to train HICAP Managers in those skills. He discussed the complexity of human communication: body language, ethnic differences in relating to others and the reticence of people to say what they mean. In the second half of the training session, he offered suggestions to improve communication and understanding, a daunting task.
Throughout his presentation, Maurice held our attention and gained the respect of a rather jaded group, all of who were trainers with their own point of view, and who had been through myriad training sessions.
When I got back to Los Angeles, I called Maurice and described my training needs to him. After a fairly lengthy conversation, he thanked me for looking at him as a professional first and a black man second. As far as I was concerned, it was not hard to do.
I hired Maurice again several years later to train another group of volunteers. This time they were all women. I wanted to help them learn management skills because they were in charge of organizing other women in their local communities. An argument could be made that I should have hired a female for this training session but I knew Maurice, and I knew he could pull it off. About ten minutes into the presentation, the group was charmed by Maurice’s authenticity and sincerity and we had a great training session.
In this presidential election we have a black man who is asking us not to think of him solely in terms of race. I often think about Maurice and wonder if he still finds that people see his skin color first, and his experience and talent second. I understand better how frustrating it must be to look out at the world and see it looking back at you solely based on your skin color.
This election is a landmark in our country because Barak Obama is presenting our country with the opportunity to see him as a man first and an African-American second. How stirring it must be for Maurice Brown to see a young African-American running for the highest office in the land. I hope Barak Obama can say to his fellow countryman, no matter the outcome of the election: thank you for not talking to me like a black man.