In high school I ran track. Every weekday from January to June we practiced after school. It was understood that right after school we would go to the field house, change for practice, run a warm up mile and return to the parking lot outside the field house to stretch with the team. This was the same field house that a rival all White high school spray painted the words, “Home of The Spear Chucker’s,” a few years later. It was a painful reminder to our school that was 98% Black that some saw us as “less then.”
In the parking lot we would line up in 5-6 lines and spread out. The team captains would be at the front of each line facing us and they would take us through the stretches. Prior to the stretching we would “clap it out.” In unison we would go through a series of claps that involved slapping our hands together as well as slapping our thighs. It was a choreographed clap that sounded good and looked even better. When we stretched we would hold each stretch for an 8 count and at 8 we would all clap and move to the next stretch. It was an orderly and synchronized routine as well as an obvious display of unity. When we would go to track meets this is how we would begin in the in-field stretching together. It was interesting to see the response we would get from the schools we ran against which were mostly White schools. On one hand we were playing into the stereotype that Black people have rhythm and on the other hand we showed them we were an organized and disciplined team which was not the picture many teams had of us prior to this display. Like any team we had our differences but when we stepped on the track we were brothers and it was something I have always cherished. To be included in this group was the highlight of my high school experience.
One day I changed earlier than usual and decided to go get my warm up mile in and out of the way. It was one of the only times I ran alone and never ran it alone again. As I exited the parking lot, I took a right turn on the sidewalk and was headed to the stop light a half a mile away. I would then turn around and return. On my way to the traffic light I saw a group of 3 teenagers walking down the side walk towards me. I got over to the right side of the sidewalk. My training in Detroit had taught me never to take a chance meeting lightly. About a year prior to this, I was walking with a friend to a corner store to get something to eat before practice. As we passed a group of teens in a car parked on the side of the road, the passenger said something to my friend which I didn’t hear. I smiled and turned to my friend and asked him what the passenger had said, before he could answer the passenger exited his car and started walking towards us reaching his hand into his Member’s Only jacket. It was the universal sign that he had a gun and was ready to pull it. Fortunately, we were ahead of him and began walking faster. He yelled after us asking me what was so funny. He followed us for about a half a block and then returned to his car. For several weeks after that I kept picturing the headline that would’ve ran had he caught us. “Young Teen Dies For Smiling!”
Because of this incident I had learned the proper way to approach a stranger coming towards me. I knew not to smile, I knew not to look up until the other person was approximately 5 feet away, and I knew not to ignore them. When I was 5 feet away I acknowledge them with a head nod or “What’s Up?” I knew to look them in the eyes so as not to appear intimidated and to validate their presence. On this day as I jogged my warm up mile I followed protocol. When I was 5’ away I looked up and acknowledge the stranger approaching me and said, “What’s Up?” He didn’t respond or acknowledge me and I knew at that point this would not be a typical encounter. As we were about even he stepped toward me and threw his shoulder into my cheek and kept walking. I stopped and looked over at him out of the corner of my eye but never turning my head. He and his two friends also stopped and braced themselves, hands at their sides with fist clinched. It was at this moment I had to make a choice. If I turned around it would be seen as an act of aggression and I would be out-manned and possibly out gunned. The pause I took let them know I wasn’t intimidated which gained some points with them. I knew this was not the time to fight this battle that I would not have won. I raised my head and continued with my jog. After they were a safe distance away and not following me the adrenaline wore off and my legs went to jelly. I was a very small teenager and my fighting resume was contained to my brothers and one kid in the forth grade.
When I returned from my run I told my teammates what happened and immediately Smitty took off to find them. He was sure to grab his brief case before he did and we all knew what he carried in it. Fortunately for Smitty and those strangers he never found them. Later I learned that they attacked 2 other team members who simply turned around when they were pushed. The bruises on their faces told me I made the right decision. On that crisp spring afternoon I learned the lesson that not all battles are to be fought and not every ignorant action deserves a response.
As the holidays approach and families come together many people will be sharing time and food to celebrate the holidays. I have heard voiced on social media that many families struggle with coming together with family members who may not share their same views. I belong to a Facebook page that was designed for transracial adoptive families and I can’t count the number of posts that center around the recent cases in Ferguson and New York and the insensitive things that their extended families are posting about these issues. The heartbreak can be felt in post after posts that all say the same thing. In very eloquent and painful ways many families are trying to figure out how to handle volatile topics like this at family gatherings. Many have voiced that these recent tragedies hit very close to home for them because they are raising children of color who may someday be confronted with similar hostility. Their fear of this combined with a family member who isn’t raising children of color and their callous response to such injustices makes many transracial families nervous. In preparation, many are designing game plans and playbooks to handle the insensitive remark that Uncle Billy may make after having a few egg nogs. Every possible scenario is being contemplated and the perfect come back is being sought after more than the Holy Grail. The posts take many forms but in the end they all want to know, “What do I say to the insensitive family member…, How do I respond…, How can I get them to see their view is wrong…
My answers are simple, “Nothing…, you don’t…you can’t. To clarify, you don’t say anything to the insensitive family member, you don’t respond and you can’t get them to see things different. You especially can’t change minds not in a few hours, in a room full of family, after some cocktails. As a person of color I have learned long ago I can’t combat every ignorant comment or insensitive remark and trying to do so only left me exhausted and frustrated. When I was younger I responded to a lot more of those comments than I do now and looking back I found some of those conversations were laid out for me and the instigator was just waiting for me to step in to their trap. Or those that said those things were speaking from their experience and had no concern or desire to hear about my experiences. I wish I had known that then. The time I spent on those futile arguments I will never get back.
My Prayer for all those that read this is that you enjoy the holidays and family and when Uncle Billy throws a shoulder to your cheek, you pause, consider the fact that not every ignorant or insensitive action deserves a response, and simply walk away.