Words matter.

“You’re really smart, for a black person” – I was told once.

“Don’t worry, she’s probably so curious because she’s never seen a black boy before” – I was told by a neighbor when I was around 9 years old, about her granddaughter, who was an infant.

“If you weren’t a black boy, I’d kick the shit out of you” – I was told once when I was 10 or 11 and hadn’t delivered the newspaper to my customer’s satisfaction.

“You speak really well for being, you know, black” – I’ve been told more than once.

“Do your parents know, that he’s… (black)” – past girlfriends have been asked.

“You’re the whitest black person I know” – I’ve been told as if being adorned with a medal of achievement.

“You’re not really black, you’re really a white man trapped in a black man’s body” – I’ve been told, almost as a term of endearment.

“Hey James, can you teach me ebonics?” – I’ve been asked by co-workers who are now pastors.

“Nigger” – I’ve been called this more than once.

America, words matter.

They always matter. They sting, they bite, they blind, they hurt, they kill.

They also have the power to do the opposite, if you choose.

I’ve lived in White America for most of my life.
At first, it wasn’t my choice. Then it was because it’s all I’ve known. I’ve never really known whether to take comfort in it or be ashamed for it.

I’ve endured endless amounts of ridicule, embarrassment and attempted shaming all due to the color of my skin. I say attempted shaming. because I’ll always be proud of the color of my skin. I’ll always be proud of my bloodlines and of those who came before me.

I know what it’s like to live in fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe – the right place – just with the wrong people nearby.
Countless times I’ve been told by someone that they thought they saw me somewhere I wasn’t, in an area I’ve never been.
They laughed it off, my fear rose.
When will they come for me with handcuffs and false accusations simply because I “fit the description”?

You see, the murder of George Floyd is about so much more than simply an act of “a bad cop”. It highlights the systemic failures of a society that has been rooted in racist behavior long before any of us ever got here.
I say “us” because you know, slave ships and all that inconvenient history and all.
They like to discuss the hostile takeover of the original inhabitants of this land by calling it “The Trail of Tears” as if it were just a few crying tag-a-longs, not human beings brutally driven from the only homes and land they knew. Oh, and thousands died during this.

This is the soil of America. This is the foundation this country was built upon.

The murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Malik Williams, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Heather Heyer and many more, are the results of generations of ignorance, misinformation and hatred bred right here in this land of the free.

Their deaths keep the fear alive. Fear that I’ll jog down the wrong street, be pulled over by the wrong cop, or wear my hoodie around the wrong person.

Yes, white people are killed by police too, and that is equally wrong. White people definitely have faced injustices of all kinds. Of course, not all police are bad and there are more than a few “bad apples” out there. But, for the sake of my young daughter and my daughter arriving this fall, I refuse to allow this to be accepted simply because “hate will always exist” or whatever tired phrase people want to throw out there.

I’ve seen a range of emotions regarding the rioting and looting that’s happening around the country. I don’t condone this sort of action outright, though these are people who feel that they’re very existence has been marginalized. These are people who have been told to protest peacefully, and nothing changed. These are people who feel unheard.

Dr. King said it best – “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

When the president calls those involved in riots “THUGS” and white supremacist’s “very fine people”, he’s not listening. He’s not listening to the voices of those who have been calling for change long before he assumed his power. When you speak about how wrong people are for their actions, maybe think about the causes first, and not the effect.

Consider what it’s like to walk a day in someone else’s shoes, not just your own, where you know where they walk and are comfortable and content in that path. Others have a different path than you.

Racism is systemic. It’s taught. It’s not in our genes, it’s not in our DNA. It’s a choice. It’s a choice to remain ignorant of the pleas of others. It’s a decision to ignore the plight of others because they might look different, act different, or think differently than you.

So, when you speak, remember that what you say has life-lasting effects. Speaking without facts is dangerous. Speaking with love, kindness and empathy can be life-giving. Think about the experiences of others first before you speak.

America, words matter. Choose them wisely.