Imagine an all-American kid in his little league uniform. What color is his skin?
When I was a boy, I thought race was color. As a younger adult, I pretended race didn’t affect me. I wanted to create a world where its influence was diminished. I still seek to create that world. But I can no longer pretend.
“You’re black,” my parents would say, again and again. At four years old, prodded by a biracial friend, I announced to my parents that I was tan.
Guess how they responded.
In sixth grade, at a public school in DC we were assigned to color-in avatars of ourselves for a reading contest. Though few white students attended the school, I was the only kid to fill in the skin areas with a brown marker. Seeing it made my father smile.
I went to private schools after that. And an Ivy League school. And following that, Howard University for an MFA in film. My time at Howard overlapped with Rachel Dolezal but I never met her – different departments, though she also received an MFA.
There were years where I dated women of color exclusively. I am engaged to a white woman.
In 2002 I purchased a black trucker cap in Montana for $3.99 that depicted the Confederate flag in puffy paint and read, “Till Death Do Us Part.”
Last week a racist killed nine black people during a Bible study session at a church in South Carolina.
None of these facts has any much relation to the others, yet in the spaces between them, a life.
Imagine this country as a roller rink, the skating surface a giant plank of wood. That plank is riven with deep cracks along racial lines, the common areas shrink closer to the barrier in the middle. Few people skate in parts of the rink they feel they don’t belong. Yet everyone wants to skate the whole rink. To spin and pirouette. To couples-skate and do tricks with their friends. Over the past few years the cracks have become ever harder to ignore. The surface is no longer adequate for even the most talented skaters to do what they do best, glide. And the best part of the rink – where the concessions are, and the rental window, and the one speaker that isn’t busted – is almost blocked off from us, the tan and brown skaters. We reverse course to get through a narrow passageway in the cracks. We jump. We leave the rink altogether and slog over the mushy pads, a walk that doubles in time because we were rented chalky skates up front, often at higher prices.
And if we’re too loud in our part of the rink, security comes in force. They don’t wear skates but heavy boots that bridge the cracks. They kneel on our backs. They expel us in numbers that would appall skaters in other rinks.
Now imagine this country as a red, white, and blue rocket popsicle. The kind that melts and drips all over your fingers. Imagine yourself licking the ridges of your sticky knuckles. Imagine the tiny splinters in your tongue as the sugar gives way – those cracks in the wood again – your popsicle gone.
I have B-movie fantasies of hunting down George Zimmerman. Of arranging my travel schedule to include a trip to Florida. Of using one of those crappy websites that comes up when you google a coworker to find his address. Of the machinations that would prevent my phone from giving away my location during a separate trip under the cover of night to face the man who, emboldened by the twin cultural towers of white privilege and guns, shocked me out of my bubble.
The problem with that line of thinking is that George Zimmerman isn’t just white. He’s biracial. I wonder if he grew up speaking Spanish in the home. He becomes human again, and the justice he deserves is not mine to give out. But whose is it? Who would say that his murder of the teenager Trayvon Martin was anything but racially motivated? Who among us would dispute that if Trayvon Martin was white, he’d be anything but a carefree twenty year-old sneaking into the campus bar, chasing some girl who would never love him back? Trayvon Martin was black. When he was killed he had rainbow-colored candy in his pocket.
We are under assault. Physically and emotionally. Psychically. We do not feel at home in this country. And yet we have no place to go. We must mold this country to fit us. We must sand down the cracks in that wood plank. Or fill them with something other than the blood of our brothers, the bones and flesh of black and brown bodies, beaten till they’re blue.
I am a black man. In my heart, I am a tan skater. Who glides. As a boy that’s all I wanted to be.