It’s been a challenging week for me.
One little sentence spoken by a dear little boy was enough to get under my skin and throw me into some kind of weird funk (the kind of weird funk, in fact, which makes you want to sit around all day listening to old revival hymns and drinking lukewarm coffee.) I’ve written and re-written this post a few times and nothing seems to work better than narrative. I don’t normally think narrative is a particularly good method to convey things like this (it’s too easy to imbed commentary and blur facts), but that’s the only way I’m able to get this story out. So I’m going to listen to myself and get it out this way.
“I saw a homeless guy asking for money yesterday.”
D., a second grader with whom I work a few days each week, was derailing our reading at every turn. When he asked me silly questions–“Whatcha going to be for Halloween?” or “I like burping”–I quickly brought the conversation back to the book about ancient Egypt we had been working on for a few days.
“Oh?” I offered, hoping that his experience of seeing a homeless man might bring about some healthy conversation or, dare I dream, a teaching moment. “What’d you think?”
“I think that guy should stop being so lazy and get a job.” There was an edge in D.’s voice. He’s normally a sweet–rambunctious and sometimes trying–little eight-year old. Second graders are not supposed to be edgy.
“What if he can’t get a job?” I set our book down, suspecting that we were in for the long haul. “Sometimes people can’t get jobs–how’s he supposed to get money then?”
“I’ll tell ya the secret.” Here, D. got really close to my ear. “He-could-rob-a-bank-and-steal-people’s-money-and-shoot-’em-up-if-they-fight-back-and-be-a-gangster.”
“Oh, Lord,” I thought sighing. “Where to begin?”
“Violence is absolutely never the answer.”
“If somebody beats me up, I’m not going to sit there and take it like a sissy.” D. asserted, starting to wiggle around and become animated. “I’m gonna go into beast mode and knock ’em.”
“D., do you think that knocking them will so–”
“And if that doesn’t work, then pow pow pow.”
“D.!,” I said sternly and put on my best this-isn’t-a-joke face. “Shooting people is never okay!”
“You don’t get it, Mr. Cody,” he said. “You’re white.”
You’re right, D., I’ll never get it–but that’s not because I’m white. I’ll never understand gun violence, robbery, or gangbanging, but that’s because I’m a human, not because I’m white. We live in a world–and I live in a neighborhood–which is ravaged by racial expectations. The idea that I have to act, think, and speak a certain way because my skin is darker or lighter than somebody else’s is ridiculous.
Race is absolutely powerful in the world and especially so in North Minneapolis. The reality is that, because my skin is light, I do experience the world differently than my little friend D. does. Why should a eight-year old with darker skin be able to get gun violence, gangs, and robbery any better than a twenty-three-year old with lighter skin? A neighbor of mine wrote on her Facebook page, “Race is an artificial political construct that has created real social injustices and ignorant, low level personal abusive interactions.”
That’s precisely it. D. gets gun violence, gangbanging, and robbery because somebody has told him that he should. Somebody has told him that, because he’s a little man with dark skin, he has to think, act, and be according to a certain set of behaviors. Somebody has told him what, who, and how he is supposed to be. My little friend is not naturally violent–he’s violent because he’s told that that’s how you have to get by in the world.
Because of somebody–and I don’t mean one person, this is a systematic issue–my little friend’s future has been decided for him. If D. is going to change his future, he’s going to have to work especially hard. Society has set him up–a young, black man from the northside of Minneapolis–to fail societally. This enrages me. Little D. is stripped of his autonomy–of his unique individuality–because somebody somewhere took the notion that little black boys from the northside grow up to be big black men–and that that means trouble.
North Minneapolis is the most creative, faith-filled, loving place I’ve ever known. That sentence isn’t a typo or an exaggeration. The people of the northside–my neighbors and now my friends–do community better than any other neighborhood I’ve seen. Sometimes people in the northside make poor decisions, but sometimes they make really great decision. They do this, not because they’re black, but because they’re human. I make mistakes every blessed day, but nobody blames them on my being white or from a small town.
Because my skin is lighter than D.’s, I’m afforded an immense amount of privilege. And that absolutely sucks.
Because D.’s right.
Nobody expects me to get it.