This essay originally appeared on the Hundreds of Words blog in 2016.
I am the black friend. The one who helps with diversity statistics at universities and offices. I was raised in the suburbs and went to private schools. I am the black man rarely depicted in media. I smile. I’m safe. And I don’t cause too much trouble. And yet, I feel the pain of my brothers.
I felt it as I rode my bike to campus one September day and was stopped by an officer. He extended a hand to greet me and asked my name.
“We’re just doing routine stops to make sure bikers are complying with the rules of the road.”
I am complying, I thought. I’m doing everything right. So why is my heart pounding at a thousand beats per minute? Why is it so hard to breathe or speak in full sentences? Why am I looking over the officer’s shoulder at his partner, noticing the gun on his hip that could easily end or protect my life?
Is it because I just watched a video that morning of a black man being tackled, beaten, and detained on his own mother’s porch? Or is it because I know that, statistically, black people have been disproportionately murdered at the hands of police in this country? No, this can’t be why I was so scared at this bike stop. It must have been paranoia.
Or maybe it’s because, not too long ago, my friends and I were pulled over by an officer who followed us for 30 minutes straight. Perhaps it’s because the officer called three backup cars, telling me that I had driven “suspiciously,” after they failed to find the “doobies” they were looking for.
I’m okay, I tell myself. I’m the black friend, the kind white people don’t mind bringing home to meet their parents. The dead black men must have disobeyed the officers, right? Couldn’t they have avoided the situation? Then I catch my own lie. I know I am just as vulnerable on this bicycle as every other person of color who has been killed, harassed, or profiled under the hand of the law. As a black man in 2016, I am still scared. Scared of white people being scared of me. Scared of white people. Scared of myself and what my skin means or what it might mean for my future child. Because whenever I look at the picture of an unarmed black man killed or harassed in this country, it is my own face that I see.
I realize, however, that every police officer can’t be bad. As a student of the media, I recognize its tendency to sensationalize. So I signed up for a police-community dialogue series here in Syracuse, where police-civilian relations are complicated to say the least. Over the course of the five sessions, I have gotten to know the officers who work the midnight shift. The officers say that the dialogues are the best interactions they’ve had with civilians while on the job in a long time. I am flattered, but also horrified.
These guys, who patrol the streets in the darkest hours of the night, rarely get to see the good side of humanity. Yet they express the same hopes, dreams, and concerns as the rest of us. Of course, when it comes to conceptions of identity and the history of racism, our discussion group has wildly differing opinions and sometimes heated debates. Some people in the group love the Black Lives Matter movement. Others hate it. Some believe that racism is alive and well, while others speak of a post-racial society. But regardless of ideology or religion, everyone is given the chance to have their voice heard equally.
Sessions like these are important for reshaping the justice system in America and have the potential to be more effective than whatever diversity-training officers go through in the academy. We as a people need to see police officers as men and women who have an extremely dangerous job to do. In return, we should demand that officers care enough to get to know and respect us. I want those officers to see my face every time they pull someone over in Syracuse’s black neighborhoods.
I recently had an experience that might shed light on this situation. At my college homecoming, I visited a popular bar to relive the glory days. I waited over 15 minutes at the bar in which I was the only person of color, while everyone around me was served. I was accustomed to this treatment in college, so I waited patiently. When the bartender finally got to me, he refused my request for water because he “didn’t have time for water.” When I complained that I had waited longer than everyone else at the bar, some of whom had been served water, he snapped, “Well if you don’t like our service, you can get out!”
Some people have this same attitude about Americans who protest the injustices of this country. But that’s not how it works, folks. When you love something, you defend it. If it’s broken, you fight to fix it. As Maya Angelou wrote over and over, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” While we may disagree on controversial topics, it is clear that direct and honest communication is the only way we will understand each other. Understanding leads to trust. And trust may just lead us to peace.