Racism is a feature of the human condition that can be studied in many ways. You can see it through the eyes of incarceration. You can see it in the machine of poverty. You can look at racism through the eyes of history, looking at heroes and victims. You can see it in the workplace and the casual, shitty joke. You can come at racism in many different directions, but when I think of racism, I think of the shoes I walked in and the place I learned when I was bussed from the white side of town to the black.
I got the briefest of glimpses into the life of a minority when I walked into a school in a neighborhood that didn’t trust me, with kids who had no reason to like me, and tried to learn under conditions that were unfair.
I learned that when a black child is bussed across town to study in a white school, they have to get up an hour earlier than their classmates. They walk into a building decorated in ways they don’t see at home. They see faces all around them that do not look like theirs. They have to face the fact that everyone around them is on some unspoken team they will never get to be on. A black child in a white school does not know when the phantom strike will take place. Does not know when a person will hit them for no reason, when a group of people will band together to laugh and cut them down. A black child in a white school learns to fear walking past the other desks in class as they walk to their chair. They see white kids talking to each other, eyes shifting to them, and they are suddenly charged with terror that they are being plotted against.
A black child bussed to a white school stands in a different culture. They are expected to know how to talk, to laugh, to joke with that culture. They have to try to guess what is okay to wear, who is okay to look at, and who is okay to sit next to.
Unless you have walked into a room filled with faces that don’t look like yours, seeing disgust and hate on some of them, and seeing it hidden in others. Unless you have been hated for just being you. Unless you have felt surrounded and outnumbered everywhere you walk and everywhere you sit. Unless you have felt the effect of sudden rage bubble up for no reason, directed at you in a way you don’t understand, then you have no idea what a black child has to live with in a white school.
Think about the life you lead. Think about the people you see around you. Close your eyes and picture a room filled with people at work or at school, maybe at a sporting event, or even the supermarket. Try to imagine you have to navigate that room, restaurant, bar or school, knowing that all around you are people who hate you, but you don’t know which ones. There are people around you who have no reason not to trust you, but do anyway. Picture yourself in a room filled with people who look at you, and the moment their eye falls on you, they assume they understand everything about you and what to expect from you.
How comfortable do you feel? How safe? Try to relax in that room. Try to laugh. Have a random conversation. Smile at the child of one of the people around you. When you picture yourself in that room, try to imagine that if they knew they could get away with it, at least one of those people would physically hurt you for no reason you could name. They want to hurt you just because of a past experience they had with a person with physical features similar to yours.
Now let’s find love in that situation. Let’s try to get ahead at work under those conditions. Let’s raise a family that does not hate, does not get bitter. Keep your eyes closed, you are still in that room. You’re holding your child’s hand. A large number of people in that room think you are a terrible parent. They think you are a criminal. They think you would hurt them, steal from them, or kill them if you were given half the chance. They think this because they assume they understand what and who you are. They are so arrogant, they think that by looking at you, they know exactly what your motives are, and what you want from them.
These people do not know anything about you. They know nothing of your dreams, or the people who raised you. They know nothing about the life you live and who you love.
Keep your eyes closed for just one more moment and realize this. You have just been, for the briefest time, in the life of a minority. I know this because I went to 20th Street School.
It is an experience I cherish. An experience that built me as a man, taught me to love all races and see each and every person before me as an individual.
I love 20th Street School because there, for six years, I was a minority.