Photo Courtesy of Women’s Running
I’m a black man.
It pains me to write it perhaps more than the pain of another potential article or news story making everything about race. I don’t look to make my race the subject of conversation, but I constantly find myself thrust into situations that force the subject. It’s the burden of that constant coerced vigilance that made a seemingly ordinary interaction with a high school-aged white girl today so extraordinary. It happened as I was dropping my son off for cross country practice, but it may help to first contrast it against another encounter that happened with my son a few years earlier.
I was taking my boys to a college football game. My youngest son was a Cub Scout and our Boy Scout troop was hosting a tailgate on campus. As is often the case with tailgating, it was hard to know what the exact location of our tent would be on the day of the event. When we were in the proximity of where we were told it would be, I decided I’d ask some people tailgating in the area if they had seen a bunch of midget misfit soldiers running around (all the Boy Scouts were supposed to be in uniform). Because I was in a public and very crowded space, I was already hyper-aware of my blackness. So, as I approached the tailgate tent, I did everything I could think of to be non-threatening: I intentionally walked slower than usual and spoke softer than usual, “Excuse me, ma’am…” Before the words had been completely spoken, the college-aged white girl I had spoken to, with other white people to her right and her left, screamed to the top of her lungs, turned away suddenly while putting her face in her hands as though I had startled her -her screech having now turned into nervous laughter, her friends around her are laughing and I walked away having died a little in that moment. I was terrified, humiliated, confused and angry all at the same time. She reacted to me the way one might react to being unexpectedly confronted by their greatest fear -some dangerous animal: a snake, a spider or a black man -with an eight year old Cub Scout in tow. I spent the remainder of that afternoon wrestling with the tacit implications of that encounter and the racist narratives it reinforced: I am bad. I am dangerous. I am a criminal. I am a super predator.
Now, fast forward to today. I’m dropping my son off at cross country practice. I’m standing apart from everyone else, not because we’re practicing social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, but because mostly everyone else is white and standing with their own circles to which I do not belong. Practice is about to begin and I watch the coach give athletes instructions of how they’re going to modify workouts for everyone’s protection and then they file in line to have their temperatures taken. Another athlete, a high school-aged white girl, arrives a few minutes later. She walks casually across the parking lot, past other students and several groups of people and walks up to me. “What are we doing?”, she asks. I reply, “Coach has just given instructions about safety practices for the workout -about staying six feet apart. Now he’s taking everyone’s temperature. You can go up those stairs to get in line.” As casually as she walked up, she walked off not knowing that she had single-highhandedly restored some of my faith in humanity. Our interaction was sublimely innocuous. She was not measured in her words or cautious in her approach. She did not indicate the slightest hesitation. The entire encounter was fluid. I was pleasantly taken aback. Since that moment, I’ve reflected on it’s implications. She treated me like a normal person. I felt like a human being.
If everyone would look at black people the way this white girl looked at me today; not as a threat, or invisible, or someone to be pitied or even as someone who should be given special treatment, but simply as another person -like everyone else, there might be hope for us all.