A 33-Year Old Black Man’s Journey Through Racism

An Op-Ed

memory: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms

racism, for me, has become a simple game of association.

every time i encounter racist behavior, i’m transported back to age 9 – when a lanky, 4th grade, playground basketball superstar decided to play 4-square on a particular weekday, needing a change.

that was the first time it happened.

you know what i mean. that was the first time it happened.

the circumstances as to why the slur was launched in my face, by an asian classmate that i had come to know well, escape me. but the aftermath of the event does not.

in elementary schools, my best friends were white: michael, david, and twins, henry and clara. so when krishna, also at age 9, lobbed the n-word my way, it was michael who stood up for me. i remember his response to this day.

“that’s not okay. he can get in trouble for that.”

luckily, michael understood the magnitude of the moment, because my immature black mind did not. i was ready to continue the game, until michael suggested that i “go tell.”

tell i did, and the firestorm that awaited krishna was like nothing i’d ever seen.

i didn’t go to class that day. didn’t have to do my homework that night. i talked to my dad on the school phone in the attendance office and he asked was i okay.

i was fine. i wanted to go back to the playground.

shortly after, krishna was brought to me by a school administrator. he was forced to apologize. my response was “it’s okay.”

the administrator, a white woman, didn’t agree. she yelled. her hands were on her hips. she looked down on krishna with a disgust and ferocity that at 33, i now fully understand.

and ironically, it was my white childhood friend to had to first understand it for me.

michael breathed life into the experience for me, when i couldn’t breathe it myself.

if i had to put a number to it? an average?

once a year, the word comes back. it comes out of the mouth of a stranger, someone so overcome with anger, or so raised in evil, that they are forced to resort to the n-word, directed at me.

or, sometimes i just hear it used in conversation by non-black folk.

it’s a unique experience, to say the least. to be put in a position where a 2-syllable word generates so much power – so much momentum – that when it hits, you are overcome with an indescribable anger that manifests itself in several contrasting ways.

your first instinct is to swing – throw all caution to the wind and swing. but does the joy of punishing that person physically outweigh the consequences of what that swing could hold?

the second instinct, at least for me, is to reason. reason with myself. try to excuse it. try to feel bad for this person, who clearly had a traumatic childhood and is unhappy inside, which must be the case if they can utter such a word.

the third instinct falls somewhere in between the first two. i have the right to be incensed, but i don’t have the right to hurt someone. i have the right to feel bad for this person, but i shouldn’t, right?

i’m the victim.

but then, i don’t want to be the victim. i’m above that. i can’t be victimized by this insignificant person. they aren’t allowed to win. ever.

the result of these confrontations is often days of confusion, anger and sadness. it fades away, but that too is sad. at no point should i normalize the reception of such an insult. but at the same time, my life must go on. i can’t linger. i can’t live in sadness that such a word with such a meaning can even exist.

i, like all black people, am forced to just live with it.

sometimes, we can’t breathe…and we just have to live with it.

but something, right now, is changing.

the hearts of those who will never endure such skin-based injustices are catching on. it took the death of a black man, caught on camera, to create that change. and that is sickening. but the best thing we can do, i think, is not let george floyd die in vain.

or ahmaud arbery. or breonna taylor. or trayvon martin. or tamir rice. or rayshard brooks. or philando castile. or thousands more, dating back to the birth of this country.

change is an arduous process. it’s painstaking and difficult. it’s an uphill battle, and we’re at the bottom of the hill.

but the ascension has begun. feet are in motion, and they’re not only black feet. and that’s the first in a countless number of steps that need to be taken.

but the first step is the most vital one.

and with it, i pray that today’s version of that 4th grade playground stalwart won’t feel compelled to sit in front of their computer screen, over two decades later, and share their experiences through racism.

hopefully, starting today, those experiences are a thing of the past.

hopefully, that black soul can breathe.