I grew up attending a small private school with mostly White students. I was almost always the only Black kid in class. It didn’t matter much. Until second grade.
One day near the beginning of that school year, my teacher sat all of the students in a circle. “I want you to each tell the class one interesting fact about your family,” they said.
For the most part things that my classmates spoke about were harmless. I can’t remember what I shared. But I do remember the girl who sat next to me.
“My family hates Black people,” she said.
The room fell silent and every single face turned to me. I was stunned, and didn’t quite know what to say. I decided to just be honest.
“But I’m Black,” I said. “Do you hate me?”
My classmate just shrugged.
“You’re not Black,” she said. “You’re Brown. So no, I don’t hate you.”
I was young enough to still have questions about race. But I was also old enough to understand that just because my skin was Brown in color, I was still a Black person. The kind of people her family hated. And she didn’t have a problem sharing this as an “interesting fact.”
After class, my teacher pulled me to the side to talk to me about what my classmate said. I could tell by her mannerisms that she was trying to be comforting, but I honestly couldn’t hear anything she was trying to say to me. All I could think was: People can hate someone because of their skin color?
That was the first time in my life I ever remember experiencing racism. The older I got, the more racism, ignorance, and bigotry I witnessed and experienced. Sometimes my “friends” used racial slurs when they sang along to popular songs. During sporting events, I was called racial slurs by opposing players. And as my eyes opened, I was affected by things I simply witnessed but did not experience, like people being treated unfairly by law enforcement.
All of these things bothered me. I didn’t let it show. I’m not sure why. But my way of dealing with racism was to pretend it didn’t hurt.
Then in 2009, I watched Oscar Grant murdered by someone who was paid to protect and serve. I shared the video with my family and friends and we were all extremely disturbed by it. But we all knew that Oscar Grant and his family would get justice; there was video. There was no argument. There was only what any person’s eyes could see: murder.
But in November of 2010, the man who murdered Oscar Grant was sentenced to two years in prison with credit for time served. Two years… with time served… for murdering someone. I couldn’t believe it. I talked to my family about my frustrations with the verdict. This led to the talk, all too familiar in Black households, about how my sisters and I should interact with police officers if we were ever stopped by them. (We’d each had this talk previously with our parents when we first started driving.) I listened, and tried to believe that what they were telling us was true — and that it could save our lives one day.
Then it happened again. And again. And again. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland.
And in all of these cases, the people responsible for the deaths were not convicted. In July 2016, on consecutive days, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile became the next two Black people murdered by police. These murders were the ones that finally broke me. I couldn’t be stoic. I couldn’t hide my emotions anymore.
After hearing about Philando Castile, I sat in my car and cried. I cried because I was mad, I was scared, I was frustrated. At that moment, I knew that Black lives were not valued in this country. I met a few of my White friends at a restaurant later that evening and was surprised to hear how upset and appalled they were at the two murders we had all just witnessed. I had a few other White friends text me and tell me that even though they did not understand my experience as a Black man in this country, they knew what happened was wrong and that they wanted to learn more about my experiences to become a better ally and advocate.
Since then I have had the opportunity to talk to some of them about what it is like being told that I am hated because of my skin color, or about what it is like to hear someone lock their car door or clutch their purse when I walk past, or about the fear and panic that takes over my body any time I drive by a police officer. Being able to voice my frustrations to people who did not look like me was helpful. And while I was still scared, sad and frustrated to see this continue, I began to think that if some non-Black people felt that way, there might be others that did too and that maybe that could lead to change.
And then it happened again. I watched a cop kneel on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while other officers did nothing to intervene. How could they care so little for a human being?
I’m not sure why, but this time was different. I was still emotional, scared, and exhausted — but this time I was pissed off, too. I decided to be more vocal and utilize my platform to bring awareness to the injustices I witnessed. I called people out (on social media and in person) for their ignorance and blatant racism. I donated to organizations that promote social justice. I supported Black-owned businesses. I read books and watched films and documentaries about racism and the justice movement and discussed them with anyone who would listen. Even though some of these are things I had done in the past, I knew that if I wanted to be a part of the change and wanted/expected the people around me to be a part of the change, I had to do more. Sharing on social media a few times was not enough. Donating once was not enough. Reading books and watching films and avoiding difficult conversations with people was not enough.
So here we are today. I’m still tired, I’m still scared, and I’m still mad that we are dealing with this in 2020. I want to be able to go for a jog, walk home, drive a car, sit at home watching TV without having to be afraid for my life. I do not want to fear that the next time I say “goodbye” or “I love you” to my friends and family will be the last time. But now I am also hopeful. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and Rayshard Brooks seem to have started a change. People of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and economic classes from all over the world are pissed off and have decided to fight for equality and human rights. And while this is a start, there is still a lot of work to be done.
If you want to be an ally. Here are some specific ways you want to help.
- Simple. But still important. Listen to what Black people have to say.
- Demand reform from governors and state/local legislators.
- Register to vote — and then vote on November 3.
- Call out racism and racial injustices when you hear/see it.
- Donate to organizations and causes that promote social justice.
- Acknowledge your privilege and utilize it and your platform to help promote change.
I remain a proud Black man. I know that racism is a part of what it means to be Black. It can be an emotional roller-coaster. But what I do know is that now, people of all colors are more motivated for change than ever before.
This story was originally published by the VCU Center for Sport Leadership, as part of their “Our Stories” series, an initiative inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.