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A Hard Conversation on Race

My wife and I noticed our teenaged neighbor walking back and forth in front of our home for the better part of 3 weeks. We have two WIFI signals at our house, one that is open and one private. I quickly realized that he had discovered the open line and had more quickly grown accustomed to free access. He is new to our community and lives the next cul-de-sac down. He is a kind, well behaved, and respectful young man. The problem is he just so happens to be both male and black.

Problem, you ask? Yes, he has the barrier of being his gender and skin color while walking back and forth in front of the houses of people he doesn’t know. It’s a problem that I know all too well. I have the same hurdle and have suffered some of the consequences of this inescapable reality.

In the 3rd week of this routine, I told my wife that I needed to talk to him to keep his naivety from putting him in an unfortunate situation. He cost us $0 dollars in using our WIFI, but my concern was for him. You see we live in a pretty diverse subdivision. But, the one thing diverse faces creates, is diverse perceptions.

So, I had the conversation with him. “What did I do?”, he asked. I assured him that he had done nothing wrong. “I can’t use your WIFI signal?”, I told him that it was not a problem, but then I had to navigate through the awkward conversation about perceptions. I didn’t know how the new couple in the corner perceived this young black man pacing in front of their home. What did the older lady think? The hermit-like neighbor? The family with children? Did anyone see him as someone casing homes for future robberies or waiting for an opportunity to attack or rape someone?

I was concerned that someone would call the police out of nervousness. I was worried that an officer would see him, not as a sweet 16 year old but a menacing 20 something, like Tamir Rice. I was troubled with the idea that this nice kid would mouth off out of frustration and ultimately end up dead in the street, like Michael Brown. I was vexed by the idea that a “well-meaning” neighbor might confront him, and he would feel threatened and the need to fight back, like Trayvon Martin. What bothered me most is that the young Hispanic girl who lived next door to him could do the very same thing and no nefarious intentions would be attributed to her.

I hated having to have this conversation with this great young man whose only flaw that I could see was his naivety. I explained to him that I know what it’s like to be in his shoes and have others unfairly stereotyped me. I know what it’s like to be pulled over and questioned by law enforcement solely because of my skin color and maleness. I hate the fact that young black men have to have a different social education than other children. I hated that I had to be this young man’s teacher. But, what I would have hated most was loosing him to ignorance, violence, and potential racism all because he wanted free Internet.

I was talking to a white pastor friend recently. He lamented at the thought that he would have to share different things with an adopted black son than his white son. I found it incredibly insightful. The truth is, young black men too often are not treated the same or seen in the same light as others. I am not saying that everyone thinks this way. I am not saying that all African American males have the best intentions. But maybe, just maybe, we can admit that things are a bit unfair. Just a thought, that came out of my hard conversation on race.

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