The Ongoing Work of Black History and Racial Reconciliation Part Two

“I live in an area with a lot of racism.” This is how he began the conversation, referring to his Midwest residence. He could have removed his hometown from the discussion and his statement would still be true.

The land once occupied by the Aryan Nations is about a half hour from where I live. The region around me has been a safe haven for neo-nazis and white nationalists fleeing Southern California for decades. I know what it’s like to live an area where racism is common. Whether it’s the Midwest or left coast, a hick town or concrete jungle, purple mountains or waves of grain, from sea to shining sea, racial prejudice is an unfortunate stain blemishing the fabric of America. Bleaching it only makes it worse.

This kid (I say kid because I’m old enough to be his dad) and I bonded a couple days earlier while eating lunch and talking about video games. Turns out his little brother is the same age as my oldest son and as I described my boy, he kept telling me “oh my gosh, he sounds just like my lil bro.” When I said Christian’s spirit animal is a sloth, this kid bust up laughing. “Same for my brother.”

His question was genuine. He wanted to know how to handle working with people who don’t like him because of his dark brown skin. “I live in an area with a lot of racism. How do you work in homes where people hate you. I mean, a couple weeks ago we went to this place and they wouldn’t even allow me in their house.”

The person who answered him is of Mexican heritage. Coolest guy in the world: bald and bearded, wears Hawaiian shirts every day, and tells stories the same way Michael Peña does in the Ant-Man movies. He prefaced his answer with assurances as someone who has experienced similar situations. He talked about safety and team support.

My new friend inquired how to behave when confronted with inescapable racism. I wanted to scream at the unjustness of his question. I wanted to say “You shouldn’t have to deal with this. People shouldn’t hate you. It’s not right.”

Life without hatred is a myopic dream. The world as it should be is not the world as it is. In times like these, wishful thinking is as useless as empty platitudes. I couldn’t respond to his valid concern with a fantasy about an equitable America that doesn’t exist. Instead, I gave him what is perhaps the whitest advice I could muster. “Kill them with kindness. Don’t give them any justification for their hatred. If they’re going to spite you, it’ll be because of their own prejudice and not for anything you do.”

Thankfully he understood the point I was trying to make. He’s a good dude and capable of maintaining that goodness in all situations. “I like that,” he said. It’s a shame this kid lives so far away. I could see myself being a good friend, falling into a mentor type of role for him.

I shared a story with him about working with people whose biases I found offensive. When I DJ, I don’t get to choose my clients, they’re assigned to me. A couple days ahead of a gig, I was meeting with bride and groom to talk about their reception party when the groom said something disgustingly homophobic. I walked away from that meeting discouraged I’d be playing music for the guy who hates people I love.

If anything though, I am intellectually consistent. I believe bakeries run by bigoted bakers should have to make wedding cakes for gay weddings. But if the roles were reversed, the baker is gay and the client is homophobic, I think the baker should still have to make the cake for the anti-gay wedding. I might not like this dude’s attitude about the LGBT community but I believe he deserves to enjoy his wedding day the same as anyone else.

Then I remembered something. There’s a PFLAG sticker on my laptop. I was going to show up at a venue with that laptop and play music for a homophobic guy with a sticker on my laptop supporting Parents Family and Friends of Gays and Lesbians. My attitude changed. I stopped feeling like I was stuck with this guy. No - he was stuck with me.

“You’re not stuck with racists." I told my new friend. "You might show up to work in their home but remember you’re doing a job. You’ll be there for a couple hours then you’re gone. You’re not stuck because you get to move on. But those bigots are stuck with you because they need you to do something only you can do.”
image courtesy of Citizen Ed

I’m not naive. I know he’s going to return home and start working with people who think of him as a lesser person because of his skin color. It won’t be everyone. It won’t even be a majority of people. Still, as far as I care, even one home where he’s mistreated on the basis of race is too many. People who hold so much contempt for someone they’ve never met makes me wish their dad was a little more like my dad.

This is why I fight for racial reconciliation.


The Ongoing Work of Black History and Racial Reconciliation Part One

My dad wasn’t a perfect father. That’s normal. I don’t think anyone is a perfect parent. We all do the best we can with the tools we’re given. We fail then learn and improve. My dad is a better father now than he ever was when I was a minor dependant. For all of the mistakes he made, he also got a lot of things right. One of dad’s biggest parenting wins is how he insisted my brother and I show love to people of the widest variety of ethnic backgrounds as possible. He instilled a value in Aaron and I demanding all people of all colors deserve our respect. He made sure we knew our black friends would always be welcomed in our home and treated with dignity.

He also lived by example. One of my dad’s best friends from college was a 7’ 1” African American dude named Duke. According to family legend, he was the first person outside my immediate family to hold me after I was born. I fit inside the palm of his hand and he held me at arm’s length like I was a basketball, pointed at me, and asked, “What am I supposed to do with him.” Apparently I was his first encounter with a newborn baby. The stories I was told about Duke are legendary. They helped form my perspectives about race. I always knew that if it I was safe as in infant in the hands of an African American, I would always be safe in the company of my black friends.
Duke is the tallest on the right. My dad is in the middle, in case you were wondering where my short genes came from.

Unfortunately, the black community where I grew up was small. Even today, less than 2% of Marysville’s population is African American. My opportunity to interact with black peers was limited. I also grew up in an era where the white kids at my school were comfortable using the N word as an insult. Despite regional biases, I worked hard to befriend the few black kids I knew. Like Nigel - the buddy who introduced me to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was in third grade. Or Sony who was a star soccer player at my high school and worked at the grocery store with my brother. When I met new black people, I wanted to be friends with them because I felt safer around them than I did around white people.

How? Because black kids didn’t call me names. Black kids didn’t bully me. Black kids didn’t push me or trip me in school hallways. Black kids didn’t pick fights with me or beat me up. There was a reason for their peacefulness but I didn’t understand it back then. All I knew: my African American friends were safe and my bullies were white.

I’m older now. In my adult years I’ve become a student of history and culture. I’ve grown to enjoy seeking out the bits of history left out of school text books. I’ve learned how the darker stories of our past have influenced certain communities of our culture. I’ve also realize how excluding these stories from public education has ill-informed other segments of our population.

George Washington’s abusive treatment of his slaves
The mass suicide of the Igbo in Dunbar Creek
The New Orleans massacre
The abundance of black cowboys in the Wild West
Jim Crow Laws
The burning of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa race riots
The Tuskegee experiment
The FBI’s investigations into Martin Luther King Jr
Watts rebellion in LA
Jackson State killings
The Move bombing in Philadelphia
The creation of anti-drug laws
Mandatory minimum sentencing
Mass incarceration

This list barely scratches the surface of how the African diaspora has been mistreated or maligned throughout American history - and often perpetrated by our own government. Many of these segments of our history were unknown to me until I was in my 30s or older.

Then I became a data analyst and began studying statistics. I dug into the numbers around upward mobility, school spending, employment opportunities, wage gaps, wealth accumulation, and uneven policing practices. I looked at how this data affected different racial groups. These numbers tell a story of stacked odds and institutional disadvantages.

Looking at the evidence, the behavior of my childhood black friends made more sense. They were more likely to get into trouble for breaking the same rules as a white kid. And if they both got into trouble for the same thing, the black kid would frequently face harsher consequences than the white kid. I learned about this by analyzing the statistics as an adult. My black friends learned this truth through experience when they were still kids.

My dad did a great job raising Aaron and me to show grace and respect to people of all races. If everyone lived by these values, racial reconciliation wouldn’t be needed. However, reconciliation is still necessary because older generations continue to pass along their racial beliefs raising a new generation of racists. As long as bigotry rears its ugly head, there’s work to be done. As long as discrimination disguises itself in coded language and gets legislated through “reasonable” policies, we still have a struggle to face. And as long as young black men ask how they’re supposed to do their jobs under the hostile pressure of white supremacists, I cannot stay silent.