I was about to drive home from the gas station the other day when a black teenager wearing shorts and a tank top flagged me down. I rolled down my window.
“Do you know where the Indian Trails Sports Complex is?” he asked.
“Sure, it’s down the — ”
“Can you give me a ride?” he asked.
Hmm. I don’t know this guy. But it’s on my way home, so ... “Hop in,” I said.
As we were driving down the street, I got to know him a bit. He was 14 and lived a few blocks from the gas station. His parents were out of town, and he was late to meet his friends to play football.
I didn’t say anything about it, but I started to wonder what his parents or anyone else might think if they knew I, a stranger, was giving their young son a ride. It’s one thing to give a ride to 24-year-old, but a 14-year-old? Perhaps sensing my unease, he said, “We’ll say I’m adopted.”
I looked at him. He had a big grin on his face, which turned into a laugh. I laughed, too. Here was a young man who wisely treated my race and his race as simple facts of life, neither to be ignored nor given a second thought.
When we arrived at the fields, he thanked me and ran off with his pals.
I started telling the story to my wife when I got home because I wanted her to hear the joke — it was amusing. But in the beginning of the story, something prevented me from telling her that the teenager was black. I just said “a teenager” stopped me at the gas station. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself that we’re in a post-racial world, in which a black man can be president of the United States.That race simply doesn’t matter.
Of course, because I neglected to mention the young man’s race to my wife, the joke deflated.
“And then he said, ‘We’ll say I’m adopted.’ Oh, and he was black,” I said. “It was funny.”
And I realized, in my attempt to be colorblind, that I had been guilty of giving race a second thought. That, and poor comedic timing.
In this situation, for me, the disruptive influence was the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Race had been on my mind lately because of the tragedy, which many believe to have been racially motivated, and it made it impossible for me to be truly colorblind. Even the teenager in my passenger seat, however good-natured about it, surely has had it on his mind.
At times like these, when coverage of the Martin shooting is everywhere, it’s inevitable that race will influence people’s thoughts and actions. Once it’s mentioned, and you have to make a conscious decision not to think about race, it’s too late.
Much has been written about the shooting, but one story stands out for its intimacy and honesty: “Trayvon Martin, my son, and the Black Male Code,” by Jesse Washington, of The Associated Press. He said the Martin tragedy compelled him and families all across the United States to carry on the tradition of teaching their young black sons a code of conduct. Washington’s version of the code is this:
“Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.
“Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight or put your hands anywhere other than up.
“Please don’t assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are.”
This is a conversation that shouldn’t have to happen. But I can respect that Washington and other parents would feel it’s necessary.
I met with Chief Deputy David O’Brien, of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, recently and asked about dealing with race on the job. I assume a few officers might be more suspicious of people of another race, while other officers might overcompensate and not be suspicious enough just because they want to avoid any accusations of being harsh.
Deputies are trained to react to all people the same, O’Brien told me. They’re to follow the policies and procedures. Listen to your conscience. But, because of the nature of the job, the plain truth is this: “Everything is a split-second decision,” he said.
To the teenager in my passenger seat: Thank you for having the courage and the nonchalance to ask me for a ride. Thanks for not assuming that I would view you as a threat. Thanks for showing that the next generation could be capable of making race even less of a big deal.
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