The strike of the chord brought silence to the room. Heads turned to find the source of the music–a man seated at a piano. The eye examiner stopped her work and joined a mass of people around the piano, many of whom had pulled out their phones to immortalize the moment on social media.
This was the scene in the eye examination room at Project Homeless Connect, the annual coming together of Milwaukee’s social services to help impoverished residents in one place. The man spontaneously playing the piano was a guest using the services. Maggie Petri, a sophomore nursing student at Marquette and volunteer that day, unlike the others the others in the room, did not get caught up in the fervor. Instead, she was skeptical. Not of the man, but of the crowd.
“It just became this huge spectacle,” she said. “I have a hard time when people don’t treat people who are homeless like they aren’t normal.”
Petri wondered why people responded with such fascination. The rush to take photos and videos made her uncomfortable. The audience appeared shocked that a person experiencing homelessness could play the piano. “Why would I take the time to stop and record the person if he wasn’t homeless?”
The trap of reacting differently based on someone’s appearance is all too easy. I know because I made the same mistake. During my internship at CNN, I wrote a story about Donald Gould, a man experiencing homelessness who went viral after a video surfaced of him playing a street piano in Sarasota, Florida.
Gould’s skills with the piano are unquestionable, but it is unlikely that the videos of him would have received the millions of views if he was not homeless. Instead, the video would be one of the millions of others on YouTube. Fascination with someone perceived as “different” pushes that person farther from social acceptance. We are shocked when a man who is homeless can play the piano, when we should be shocked at our unwillingness to accept the marginalized as people.
What did you think? How can we change the way we interact with our neighbors? Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter.
A chance to see the world from the perspective of a 6-foot-2, aspiring human rights journalist. Will include lessons learned and reflections.