Today our dog Charlie barked to go out, and when I opened the slider, he took off across our narrow back yard. I looked up and saw in the yard behind us a young man in a hoodie, likely mid-20's, hand money to another in his late teens, wearing baggy clothes and hoodie. They were in plain view of the windows where Andrew and I were hanging out, but they stood awkwardly behind the garage of the other house, where there were no windows or doors. The second young man, son of a caregiver of my elderly neighbor, counted the money, pocketed it, and turned to go back into the house.
My immediate thought was they were up to no good. Was it a drug deal? I felt concern that I'd have to tell his mother and that would be an uncomfortable conversation. Of course, I had no proof that it was a drug deal, just concern that they were standing in a weird place in the yard beyond prying eyes-- except for my own, of course.
Then, both young men looked up and saw me. Our eyes met, and something shifted. I felt something that went beyond the previous awkwardness and discomfort. Fear? Yes, it felt like fear. In less than a second, I'd switched from maternal concern for the second young man to fear.
I am sharing this with you as I explore my own feelings and reactions. It is not flattering to me, but it's real. You see, both young men were Latino.
Had I witnessed a drug deal? Was the older guy in some Central American gang? I was safe inside my house, but the fear sprang up from thinking I'd put my family in the middle of something dangerous when they looked at me.
What flashed through my mind stemmed from what I see on tv and read online and assumptions and prejudices I didn't even know I had.
This is why when someone says, "I don't see color" or "I don't see race" I don't believe it. We all see color. We all see race, whether we admit it or not. What we see may sends different messages to each of us, based what we read and hear and experience, but we see it for sure.
My other neighbor across the street has sons the same age as the young man/boy next door (Wow, how much more likely am I to say "boy" when it comes to the neighbor I know better and "man" when it comes to the one I don't???) If I saw my neighbor Luke receive money off to the side of his house in a similar fashion, I'd probably text his mom about it, not worried I'd somehow get caught up in some MS-13 situation. Never once thinking I'd possibly be in personal danger.
This entire scene transpired in a matter of seconds. And it brought into shocking relief my own bias. It helped me better understand how dangerous it is for brown and black sons in our country to be out doing normal things because of visceral, knee-jerk reactions from people like me. Knee-jerk reactions from law enforcement.
Normal things like hanging out with their friends. Eating in restaurants. Applying for jobs. Driving.
And yes, selling the family trampoline.
I watched the first young man head to his car, get a ladder and tools, and start to disassemble the trampoline he'd just purchased for his family.
I got to spend the next two hours looking out my back windows, thinking about race and my own assumptions. And thinking about how when people of color tell me what what it is like to face racism, it is my job to listen and believe. Not to try to make excuses. Not to deny or diminish their experiences because I want to paint a picture of the world I want to live in, not the world as it is. Not to claim to not see color, but to admit that we live in a world that DOES see color. To admit that I make mistakes, and that those mistakes are painful to those I hurt, even if they never even find out about it.
The trampoline is gone now, but I will not forget today.