When the news that Heather Heyer was brutally murdered by a neo-Nazi piece of human garbage in the Charlottesville white supremacist dumpster fire, I was horrified, but not surprised. Afterward, while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I read several posts along the lines of, "This is not American," and "This isn't America," etc. *This* is when I became surprised. Self brain-washed bigots murdering people they hate for no logical reason whatsoever is not American? Since when? I thought. I wanted to call Alex not only to ask him to help me come up with new vile terminology for the walking buckets of pig excrement that are white fascists, but also to be like, "Are you seeing the naive as hell posts by millennials? What da faq?"
When we were in the first and third grades, my father's job took us from Columbus, Indiana (home of Chuck Taylor, some fancy architecture, and the clenched-asshole-for-a-face that is our vice president), to Charlotte, North Carolina. While there are many differences between these two towns and these two states, let me point out the one I noticed first.
Columbus= Five black people? Maybe? Maybe a dozen? I personally knew five, but you get the point. The place is whiter than an L.L. Bean warehouse fire.
Charlotte= Oh, hey black people! Hey a lot of black people. Like, whoa, most of my class is black. There are three times as many black people in my third grade class alone then there were in all of Columbus! Neat!
While our old friends back in Columbus were trying to figure out which color they'd wear for Color Wars during Field Days, we were navigating a different kind of color war. The race kind. The racist kind. The American kind. For example, upon arriving to our new school, Alex and I had never heard the word, "cracker," used as a derogatory before. I assumed that being called a cracker meant that I went with everything. Jam, deli meat, cheese, peanut butter; all delicious on a cracker. This must mean I am very well liked, right? At the same time I was sorting out snack-related slang, Alex was trying to navigate around another word we had never heard before. The "n" word. Exponentially more horrid than "cracker." He heard it on the playground during recess on our first day, and, if I remember correctly, asked a classmate what it meant. Well, the classmate thought it would be funny to tell him to say it to a black classmate, so Alex did. And Alex paid. He paid in the price of a few flailing, first-grade level punches and an abbreviated lecture on the history of the "n" word and Modern Usage 101 from our new principal. Who was black. Welcome to the world of racism, kid.
After our (thankfully) brief rocky start, we made friends with all of our classmates; black, white, and the boy who had just moved from Columbia and had accidentally shaved off part of one eyebrow when he was practicing shaving his face (I was in love). But while making these new friends, we started noticing that there were differences between our white classmates and our black classmates that weren't really talked about, but were there. Like, why didn't any of my black friends from class live in my neighborhood? Why didn't the teacher say anything when my black desk mate, a boy we'll call Trevor, refused to open his standardized test, and just filled in all of the letter "C's?" Why did the art teacher insist we not refer to black people as "African Americans" because not all black people come from Africa, but my regular teacher insist we do? Why do I feel weird singing, "If I Had a Hammer" in the school's choir? Why did Keon, who was black, not win class president when he brought everyone in the class a King sized Kit-Kat bar, and Jenna, who was white and brought nothing, did (Seriously, Jenna? Not even the cheap, hard as nails bubblegum? You and your candy-less campaign suck, Jenna.)? Why do things always seem harder for the Keons of the world than they are for the Jennas? I mean, if a goddamned KING SIZED CANDY BAR doesn't get you places, something evil has to be at work, right?
Grade school is a strange time when it comes to learning the nuances of race. You like everyone who is nice to you, because you're young and blissfully ignorant and hopefully don't know how ugly the world can be yet. But at the same time, there are these silent separations, different expectations, quarrels dressed up in childish "unfairness" that are really just the seeds of misguided ideas from the outside, creeping inward and taking root. No one is born racist, but it grows rapidly if we let it.
We were only in Charlotte for a few years before my father's job plopped us back into the Midwest, right back to the very town, the very school we had left. After our first day back to school in Indiana, I walked the four blocks home with Alex. We were silent almost the entire way, until he said, "That was kinda weird, wasn't it? Everyone is exactly the same." At first I thought he meant that our old friends hadn't changed much since we left, but then realized he meant what I had been feeling all day. That being in a room, a school, and a town full of people who are just like you doesn't seem like such a good idea. Maybe there were times our Charlotte classrooms were uncomfortable because all of us were learning about our similarities and our differences simultaneously, but as with running, sometimes to get better you just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And by that point, we were.
When he started going to prison, Alex frequently wrote and spoke to me of the inequality he witnessed within the prison system. A few months before he died, he sat on a panel at a Black Lives Matter event hosted by the local community college, and openly acknowledged that on the lowly totem pole that is prison, he, being white and mentally able, was certainly nowhere near the bottom. I was really proud of him for going, especially knowing how nervous he was. I called him after it was over to see how it went. He said he didn't talk a whole lot, but that he made sure to point out the fact that a white ex-con was speaking at a Black Lives Matter event when black men are incarcerated five at five times the rate of white men, and shouldn't everyone there be wondering why that was?
"Dude," I said, "that's a damn mic drop."
"I know, right?"
For a minute, I could have sworn he was the tiniest bit proud of himself. I really hope he was.
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