On Race and Speaking Up


I was 12 when I first really felt the sting of racism, when I found myself identified by my teacher as a possible “suspect” for the profanity-laced question anonymously placed in the question box for the DARE officer, and I as looked around the group of six of us being lectured in the hallway by the officer, I realized, in or moment of recognition and shock that the only thing I had in common with the other kids was the color of my skin. The one white kid among us, a known “troublemaker”, later proudly confided in us that it was him. I was deeply hurt by this and confused- wasn’t this the same teacher who had sang my praises to my mother weeks earlier at the parent teacher conference as I shyly looked at my feet?

I was 13 when black classmates made fun of my sisters and I for having a white mother; 16 when a high school “friend” nicknamed me “blacky”, and I being far too timid to say anything, nervously laughed every time he said it.

17 when as a straight-A student at the top of my class, was told by my guidance counselor I could get into a good college because they were looking for “diversity”, without a second thought given to my credentials; 18 when on a summer afternoon walking down the street, a cop car pulled over, questioned me and demanded ID.

I was 20 when I was first called a “n—–“, a group of five white boys in the car next to mine as we both pulled up to rent movies from the local blockbuster. 21 when I was told by the manager of the restaurant I worked at that I was the “whitest black person” he knew.

I was all ages when my mixed race family drew stares from people that couldn’t figure out such a bizarre family arrangement. I was, and continue to be called “articulate”- please stop doing that. Being called articulate always feels like a backhanded compliment because it is unknowingly, and innocently offered as an observation in contrast to what should be expected of a black person- how often is the primary trait of talented whites identified as being “articulate?”

I was 22 when a state trooper insisted on inspecting my vehicle- including the trunk, and when queried why, responded without hesitation that “a black man in the {next town over} had beat someone up and threw them in their trunk”.

I was 23 when I had my first car accident- a minor one, where I hydroplaned on a wet s-curve and wound up with the hood of my car pinned under a guardwire. The police officer that showed up approached from the opposite direction, looked at me, drove by and parked 50 feet behind my vehicle. Then, without any question about my status- was I hurt? was I okay? demanded over the loudspeaker, that, in the rain, I get out of my vehicle and walk my license and registration back to him. I swallowed my anger and my fear- because every black person knows the absolute last thing you are supposed to do is leave your vehicle and approach a cop car- its far too easy for that wallet to turn into a menacing handgun.

I was 8 when Rodney King was beaten senseless by police officers and remember watching the subsequent riots on tv; 12 when the black community, without deeper analysis, could be perceived as to have blindly celebrated the “innocent” verdict of OJ Simpson; 15 when James Byrd was dragged to death in Texas (which left me fearful for a long time, especially the idea of venturing into “the south”), 16 when Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by the NYPD; 28 when Troy Davis was executed and 29 when Trayvon Martin was gunned down. The truth is race always has, and always will be a part of my life, and the troubled ether of society.

I was 26 when I was first told it was okay to talk about race in a public setting, by a graduate school professor that validated the minority experience, and to whom I am still grateful. Because for most of my life, racism was the one social injustice I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. Child abuse, human rights violations, poverty- you name it, I’d research it, name it, fight it- but race is something different. Part of what it means to be the “black friend” in groups of whites is to not talk about race, lest you make them uncomfortable- or at least thats how I felt.

No one wants to talk about race- especially people like me- those that are perceived to have “made it”, and are “so white” as to be acceptable in mainstream society- if you don’t “dress black”, “talk black”, “act black”, and certainly don’t talk about the fact as someone considered “black”, that you are unhappy with how blacks are treated, then you just might become a “token black”- the one that makes it, that proves the system is not rigged, because after all, if Kevin can make it, if Obama can become president, then surely this black-white thing is overplayed and we can all just continue on in our merry “colorblind” lives.

The hardest part about all of this, is that race is such a difficult thing to discuss, such a painful wound to open, such an easy topic to dissolve into misunderstanding, fingerpointing and political manipulation. It is too easy for some blacks to point to the invisible hand of a racism as the reason for their shortcomings, just as it is too easy for some whites to dismiss racism on the simple grounds that they themselves are not racist. The reality we need to grapple with is not that “ugly racism”- the kind that makes us shudder at its vile and cruel violence, but racism built into our society that requires no obvious malice or intent to operate.

It is the racism that results in biased drug laws and enforcement patterns that leads to the incarceration of generations of young black men. It is in the systemic underfunding of public schools in minority-heavy areas, and in an overall attack and rejection of social services that are perceived to primarily benefit blacks, even when the majority of beneficiaries are non-black (welfare). It is all of these things and 100 little things that present confounding problems- it is in the accumulated wealth differential in the black and white communities, which while understandably not likely caused in recent years by “racism”, was set in motion decades ago by discriminatory education, housing and employment policies and practices.

But the biggest problem of all is our collective silence, our fear to broach the topic, to risk offending or to be crucified- regardless of our race. It is in our fleeting anger over the Trayvon Martin case, but unsustained outrage at the multitude of daily and systemic injustices wrought upon a whole class of people for no reason other than the pigmentation the gods dole out. It is my staying silent for so many years, and others being relieved by it for so many more. It is in the marginalizing of contemporary public figures that focus on race, and in the naked race baiting of politicians for personal gain.

And so here it is. An attempt at conversation on race, which while surely imperfect, incomplete and insufficient is a start.

RIP Trayvon and the countless other lives lost to violence and incarceration. And a prayer for all the youth today whose dreams are being muted by the proverbial good people standing idly by.



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