All too often, a white person says to me, “Black people and white people aren’t so different.”
I understand that there can be a positive sentiment somewhere in that statement, but even when that sentiment is there, there is a lack of acceptance of a very real difference.
My usual response to that statement is to open my mouth slightly, take in a breath in order to begin speaking, then remember how these conversations usually go, then close my mouth and shove what I was going to say into a place deep within my soul that, at this point, is so full that my left eye probably won’t ever stop twitching.
But, for right now, I think I’ll take this opportunity to stray from my usual response, left eye be damned, and I’ll start with a story.
Did I ever tell you about the time my father lost everything he owned, except for his car and a bag of groceries?
Well, once upon a time in the 1980s in the far away land of Tucson, Arizona, my father left his apartment to go to the grocery store. Upon returning, he found his apartment to be locked from the inside. He banged on the door over and over until someone opened it. What he saw inside was a handful of guys cooking up drugs! They informed him that his apartment was now their apartment and that was the time my father lost everything he owned except for his car and a bag of groceries.
Maybe you were expecting a different ending.
Perhaps you were expecting that he might call the landlord or the police? Ah, well, the landlord never answers and at that particular time, the police did not go to that particular neighborhood. Maybe it was because a politician’s crime stats would be thrown into disarray. Maybe it was because that particular neighborhood was too dangerous for the police to feel safe patrolling. Maybe it was because there were no white people in that particular neighborhood. I don’t know, but the particulars didn’t really matter much to my father.
The police obviously aren’t the only particular problem here. Even if they had come down to his neighborhood and arrested the trespassers, those trespassers would be out in a day, they knew how to get into his apartment and my father had to sleep sometime.
When I tell this story, oftentimes a white person brings up statistics about how we’re all doing so much better now than we were then. In case you’re thinking that very thing right now, a problem with statistics is that there are often specific, intended readers for those statistics. There’s a target audience. My father was never part of that target audience. And my father’s old neighborhood isn’t part of any statistics. Its economy isn’t part of “The Economy.” Its people aren’t part of any group this country chooses to identify as. For all those reasons, and probably a few others, we have no idea how many places are just like it all over the country. And honestly, I don’t think we really want to know.
Usually now is when white people start talking about class, but before we get into that, let me tell you another story.
Did I ever tell you about that time when I was a kid that an old, white lady with bad eyesight accused me of a crime that was committed by a totally different Black kid? I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that the whole thing ended with my public defender pleading me out against my will.
How about that other time when I was a kid and I got jumped? During the process, I got beat up pretty badly and my bike was destroyed. After the responsible parties were found and admitted guilt, the police told me they weren’t going to do anything about it because, “They said you were running your mouth.”
And there was the time in elementary school when Officer Friendly put the cuffs on me to show the class what it looked like, against my will, while he laughed…
There was the time the police falsely accused me of breaking tombstones… Shooting out street lights…
I could go on.
Now, here’s the part that may surprise you. Without even counting any of those incidents, I have been stopped by the police (while driving, walking, standing still and yes—a couple times in the ‘90s—while rollerblading) 38 times, while somehow, only ever getting one ticket.
Two of those 38 times were in front of my own apartment. One was when a cop put his spotlight on me and began hollering because he thought I was about to attack a white girl entering her apartment.
The reality was that my girlfriend and I were just walking into our apartment together.
The other was when a plain-clothes cop tried to buy drugs from me as I stood there, shirtless, in my running shorts sweating and breathing heavily…Because I’d just been running, not because I was high…Maybe a runner’s high…Yeah, he didn’t like that joke either.
Those two particular times stick out for me because, like my father, I also live in a neighborhood where the cops don’t go.
But the reasons for absent police are very different.
For the last seven years, I have lived on a short, quiet street in a residential neighborhood that’s gentrifying so quickly that I might be white by the time I finish writing this.
Seriously, though. I probably see a cop on my street once a year. Maybe.
I’ve already told you about two of those annual sightings, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, it is fair to say that I live in a middle-class neighborhood, and my father did not. Does that class difference make my life easier? Absolutely. Does that class difference erase the racism?
Not at all.
This past weekend, in my beautiful, white, middle-class, gentrifying neighborhood, someone broke into my brand-new truck. They smashed up my console, stole my toll money and a few other things.
My insurance company said I could file a claim without filing a police report, so that’s exactly what I did.
Maybe you were expecting a different ending.
Perhaps you thought I would call the police.
I informed my neighbors, but I’m just not going to call the cops.
See, professionally, I am a musician, so my job requires late nights and loading my gear in and out of a vehicle. If this gentrification has its way and I turn white, maybe a few extra patrols might leave me feeling a little bit safer doing that. But, right now, as the only Black person in a five-block radius, the last thing I want is a cop rolling up on me in the middle of the night, seeing me load things in and out of a brand-new truck.
Maybe you’d still call the police. Maybe color is a difficult thing for you to see here, so let me put it another way.
If you have had vast, personal experience with police and that experience has only ever been 100% negative, it doesn’t matter what opposing statistics say. It doesn’t matter what social class you’re in. It doesn’t even matter what’s written on the side of the police car. You would be a fool to ask for help from someone who has only ever tried to harm you.
And just in case you think my life is some sort of exception, or that I’m some sort of outlier, that’s my exact point. My story may be practically unheard of for white people, but it is all too common for Black people. Philando Castile had been stopped by the police more than 50 times before a police officer eventually pulled him over and murdered him in front of his family.
Black people and white people live in very different worlds and because of that, we are very different peoples.
To dismiss that difference is to not only dismiss the suffering of a people, but also your own opportunity to help.
So, please, if you’re interested in helping, acceptance is the first step.
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