it was one of those beautiful, nothing can mess this up type of nights. friday night, dinner with friends, spring time in michigan kind of nights.
my wife and i had just enjoyed one of those nights with friends that you wish could happen every night, the kind you leave thinking that if life was like this all the time, you would have the perfect life.
and then it happened.
last time i checked it was 2013.
last time i looked i had brown skin and it still didn’t affect anyone else.
we were half a block from our home in beautiful heritage hill in downtown grand rapids, michigan.
obviously i was stunned. “did you hear what that guy said?” i asked my wife, who luckily had not heard that dirty phrase. he was on his bicycle, and yes he was white. if there is anything i hate, or more like hate with a passion, it’s when people talk about people of other cultures and ethnicities with a derisive attitude. i hate it more than i can express. who am i and who are you to talk down someone different than us? if you think you can answer that with a good answer, i’d love to hear what you have to say. chances are, you are full of… well you know.
anyway. at that moment i had a choice. i could get mad. i could get angry and chase after the bicycled man and beat him up to teach him a lesson. or i could walk away and pretend everything was okay. you know what i did? i just shook my head. i was sad. it is 2013. i had hoped that that word had been retired in people’s minds.
you see, it isn’t the word that bothers me. a word is just a word until someone gives it meaning. so that word doesn’t mean anything to me. neither does that guy on his bike. i think what hurt is that he was so callous in how he used it. it was used with intention. it was used to hurt. it was how easily it slipped out of his mouth. it was how he dug deep into his throat and uttered such a disgusting phrase so quickly upon seeing me.
look. you can call me what you want. you can call me James. that is my name. Gilmore. that is my name. you can call me an african-american. i am one. you can call me black. you can call me brown. you can call me athletic. you can call me educated. you can call me married. you can call me a writer. you can call me a son. a brother. an uncle. a cousin. i am all of these. call me what you want. but really? are we really still calling people names? as a black/brown/african-american/athletic/educated/married/writer/son/brother/uncle/cousin i am just disappointed that we are still in this battle with each other. it’s tiring and sad.
it would be easy for me to say, you don’t know me so why would you say that? why would you use that word so easily? and it’s true. he didn’t know me. i think i would be pretty justified in my anger and any decision of defense that i decided would be appropriate. it’s true. he doesn’t know me. i don’t know him. i don’t know what spurred that guy to think it was okay to say something so ugly. but what would anger do? what does me thinking he is disgusting do? should i hate white people? does that work?
i’ve heard most of my life the unintended racism that people don’t know they live with. “James, you aren’t really black” “James, you are really smart for a black kid.” “James, you must be super athletic, you know, since you are black.” “James how come you can’t jump higher, don’t all black people jump high?” “James, you have an advantage, you are black, you are built to be more athletic than me” “James, don’t take this the wrong way because i am not racist at all but…” which is typically the thing said right before an inappropriate comment is made. most times i ignore it. most times i just shrug it off. but now, especially as a writer, i don’t think that is most appropriate. i won’t get angry about it. i won’t cry about it. but i will talk about it. conversation is the key to healing.
this isn’t the time for us to look the other way. it especially isn’t the time for me to pretend these things don’t happen. i’ve had almost every racial slur that you can think of thrown at me. if you can think it, i’ve been called it. part of me doesn’t care. people are dumb. that’s usually my thought. but now, being married and knowing my wife is affected by it, i have to address it more. and especially knowing we want to have children some day, it is simply not something i can ignore.
i’m not writing this as a sob story. like i said, you can call me what you want. but what i want, when you see someone different than you, is to think before you speak. take a deep breath. think about that person. think about their story. do they have a wife? do they have a husband? do they have family members who will be hurt by what you say? do they have the same advantages or disadvantages you do? what is their story? how are your words going to make them feel better? why do you want them to be hurt by your words? what is your point?
this world is a painful one these days. it is tough to get through the day without feeling hurt and sad about something. so why would we want to try to tear someone else down by our own words?
a word is just a word until someone gives it meaning. and believe me, if you use words to another person, they will give it a meaning. so do you want it to be positive or negative?