A tall, muscular black boy stopped me in the hallway at school when I was 12. I was an affluent, nerdy kid from a nice part of town, and he was an athletic, dominant kid from a poor neighborhood. He'd been "held back" a few times, so while he was only one grade level ahead of me, he was a few years older.
Most of the kids in school were afraid of him. I thought he was funny, and loved watching him bully the kids that usually bullied me. My admiration was remote though, and this moment in the hallway was the first time he'd even acknowledged me. I wasn't sure if this was a positive development or not. He put a hand on my shoulder and asked me a question, "Hey, are you prejudiced?"
Of all the sentences I expected to hear in that moment, "are you prejudiced" wasn't one of them. I pondered for a moment before answering as honestly as I could, "I believe racism is the product of weak minds and social ignorance."
What can I say? I've always had a way with words.
A funny thing happened: from that day forward, this guy always had my back. We were never close friends or anything, but we'd talk and sometimes sit together at lunch. That year was a turning point in my life. Anytime one of my long time bullies cornered me, there was my protector. He'd tell them, "That's my dog. If you want to fight him, you get to fight me first."
No one accepted his invitation. For the first time, I had the space to live a school life without bullying. I started to make friends, and that is the first year anyone signed my yearbook without making fun of me or insulting me with swear words. All because of a chance encounter in the hallway.
I've always loved black people. I write that sentence fully aware how it could be read, but it's true. In grade school, one of my only playground companions was a black kid who was made fun of almost as much as I was. I couldn't say that "some of my best friends are black," but I could say, "the only kid who'll go on the monkey bars without making fun of me is black."
I'm learning disabled, so I was in a remedial language arts class in the 9th or 10th grade (I can't remember which). I was one of two white students in the class. One day, the teacher was talking about speeches and she started talking about Martin Luther King and his "I Have a Dream" speech. She asked if any of the students could recite any of it.
So, I raised my hand. Our teacher looked at me, her eyes bearing the mark of confusion, before she said, "Do you have a question?"
"No ma'am. I know the speech."
"Do you really?"
"Yes ma'am. I memorized it over summer break."
"Why did you do that?"
"Because Dr. King made our world a better place."
And then I recited the speech, starting with, "I am not unmindful..." and ending with "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last." I allowed the words to move me. Toward the end, a tear rolled down my cheek.
The class went *nuts*. I mean absolutely bonkers. It was like something out of a movie or childhood fantasy. There was applause, shouting, and our teacher had to dry her eyes. I was even promoted to the honors program for the next school year.
Though I am as Southern as they come, I can tell anyone, with complete honesty, that I do not judge people by the color of their skin. I've never viewed myself as a white human, or someone else as a black human. My model of reality only accommodates "human," full stop.
For a long time I was proud of this. So proud, in fact, that I would sometimes tell my black friends about my highly sophisticated understanding of race. I was certain that over time, more and more white people would wake up and view the world like I do, then we'd be a post-racial society. One day, Martin Luther King's Dream would be Reality.
That was really stupid.
You see, you can only ignore race if society allows you to. I am an affluent white male, and society will pretty much let me do anything I damn well please as long as I don't harm other affluent white males or their possessions. What my black friends wouldn't tell me was they couldn't just view themselves as human. The world constantly reminded them they were black, but they didn't have the heart to shatter my idealism with words.
Instead, they showed me. They'd take me shopping, and I'd be shocked and confused that security would follow them around the department store, or the gas station. Or we'd walk down a city street at night, and a police office would look at me and ask if everything was alright. Not ask us, but ask me.
I wish I could say that this only happened in the Southeast, but I've watched my black friends have opposite experiences in identical locations all over the country–even California. It's not just my black friends, all my non-white friends have different experiences than I do.
I am "just a human being", but they are a race first. They can't "just drop the labels," because they can't put their hands in their pockets at a gas station without raising suspicions about shoplifting. My middle class black friends can't have their other friends of color visit them in their affluent neighborhoods unescorted or the police will get a call from a concerned neighbor.
These are the stories I've seen in my own life, but there are many others. Take a few minutes and read the #alivewhileblack conversation on Twitter, and you'll see that America isn't the same for non-white Americans.
We all bear the strain of being boxed in by stereotypes and generalizations–including affluent white males. Positive stereotypes have their own burden, just ask an Asian American who's not any good at math or a gay man with no fashion sense. But these burdens don't have life or death implications.
The systematic racism of American institutions does have life or death implications. The stories of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have brought the different experiences of white and black Americans when dealing with law enforcement to stark relief. Though the case of Michael Brown is wrought with confusion and controversy, Eric Garner's situation is less ambiguous: a peaceful father was harassed and then strangled to death on the street. A grand jury chose not to take that case to a trial.
I can't imagine the same decision would have been made if Eric Garner was white.
Likewise, I have no doubt that I'd have recourse if I felt harassed by a police officer–and God help any police department that gunned me down or otherwise ended my life in the street. Public outcry would be deafening if I were to die at the hands of law enforcement without offering a clear threat. I'm a successful, affluent white man with no criminal history.
The fact that there would be ramifications for any violence against me, while there is none for Eric Garner shows us that there is not true equality for all Americans. I am free to forget race, my black friends are not. I'm assured that any interaction with police will end in peace if I am not violent, my black friends have no such assurance.
It is not enough for me to forget about race. It is not enough for me to move beyond prejudice. I also have to acknowledge that the deck is stacked in a real way against people of color, and that our opportunities are not the same. Sometimes I forget how difficult that is for many white Americans.
But I've been reminded as I've tweeted about Michael Brown, Ferguson, or Eric Garner. I've found myself the target of both genuine confusion and bitter vitriol.
Many white people can't conceive that racism is a persistent and serious problem in America. They believe, like I once did, that because they are not racist, racism is no longer a serious problem. They are blind to systematic racism, and on some level offended when the topic of race is raised. It's easy to feel implicated in any discussion of race as a white person. It's vital to understand that saying systems or institutions have racial bias is not the same as saying all the people in those systems are racist.
And then there's the vitriol. I don't have a handle on where it comes from. All I know is there are some people who are very angry that I posted this:
My fellow white people: this is a time for listening. This is not a time for lecturing or rationalizing.— Mike McHargue (@mikemchargue) November 25, 2014
But #blacklivesmatter and #alivewhileblack have something to teach white Americans. Our view of society comes from a privileged position, and the work of racial reconciliation in America is not done. Our black President isn't the final triumph, and Oprah and the NBA aren't signals that the battle is won.
Black Americans are incarcerated at higher rates for the same crimes. They are more likely to experience harassment from law enforcement or security professionals. They have lower incomes, even when they do the same job as a white person. They have less access to board rooms and Wall Street than their paler neighbors.
It's time for white people to listen and to learn so that we can act with intention. It's time to stand with our black neighbors and friends and build that world where, "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
It's time to wake up and chase that dream, because that dream can only come to life if we all work on it together.
I believe that black lives matter. Do you?