I figured out people treat me different because they’re scared of me. People I’ve never met. Simply because I’m Black.
When I was a little boy of only six or seven I had large bright brown eyes, a dazzling smile and an infectious laugh. I remember strangers and other children would touch my hair although my parents kept it short. I was outgoing and loved to read and would make friends wherever I went. Everyone would always comment on how intelligent and polite I was.
As I became a teenager, I did not realize it, but secretly, something was happening to me. Strangers were not so easy with their smiles, other kids were not so friendly, and adults were not so kind. I was becoming a man. A Black Man. And people could see it in my emerging features: in my long, athletic legs, the curly hair on my chin. The harmlessness of my childhood had begun to shed and I was turning into something culturally feared. Something mysterious. Something taboo. But no one told me.
But then, no one needed to. Teachers, other parents, coaches, they all treated me different from when I was a kid. I would constantly be underestimated, counted out. There were secret rules I needed to follow, ways I was to be or people would get uncomfortable. Some created by pop culture, some by the lingering poison of ignorance and racism. Some kids were so bold as to explain them to me. Some teachers so obtuse as to leave me out of activities.
There was a time I was cornered in a locker room, having just showered, in nothing but a towel. Two white kids, fully clothed, asked me if it was true if Black People have an extra muscle. I asked where they heard this and they explained it’s what enables us to run faster and jump higher. I laughed it off and said “I’m darker than you. I’m not a different species”. It did not occur to me until after I was clothed and out of that room, that they likely expected me drop my towel and confirm that myth and a second.
I learned even clearer the fear that surrounded me when I became old enough to drive. I could be pulled over at a moments notice in Iowa driving the speed limit, or sitting in the passenger seat of a friends car. I joke with my friends that I was pulled over while I was parked. And I was. And nearly arrested. Engine off, reading comic books outside the wrong Dominos Pizza. It’s a long story…
A few years later AP news reported that Black people in Iowa were arrested 15 to every one white person. The 2010 census stated that Black people made up less than two percent of Iowa’s population. You don’t have to be good at math; institutionalized racism is alive.
Everyone grows up and looses their boyish charm. But it was only a few years back that I finally pieced together that people fear me. Before they meet me, they are certain they know who I am. And they are convinced who I am is a threat to them.
So I cannot say I am shocked about what happened to Trayvon Martin. It could very well be me that was shot and killed, my killer acquitted. I understand all too well how it happened.
I’m not asking for social justice or a different verdict. There may be people upset at me for saying this, but I don’t care about the trial. My sole interest in this is in understanding.
You cannot judge your neighbor no matter who they are. To do so is to rob both him and yourself of the opportunity to grow and become better people. We can change the way we see each other and give each other the chance to show our individuality. But until we all recognize the prejudice in our hearts, there will be more violent deaths, more misunderstanding, and more resentment.
It’s understandable if you were upset by the death and the trial, but its much more valuable to learn, change and to be better.
Change starts with you. If you’re like me and think we can be better, pass this along.