Letter to a Young Black Man

Dear Young Black Man –

I passed you on the sidewalk yesterday while I was out for a stroll. You had on a hoodie, despite the heat, and your shorts were sagging. You had your ear buds in, your hands shoved deep into your pockets, and for whatever reason you were wearing a backpack. You weren’t walking very fast.

I saw you coming before we ever passed. I’m going to be honest – I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear for my life. I didn’t worry about whether or not you were going to hurt me.

Instead, I wondered if you were going to look me in the eye.

See, before we crossed paths yesterday, I crossed paths with other young men like you, taking the same route on their way home from school in the afternoons. And I started noticing something interesting: whenever I would pass a young man like yourself, I’d look you in the face to say hello.

Because, you know, enlightened white man.

Anyway, none of your compatriots would look me in the eye. None. To a man, they kept their eyes on the sidewalk or the sky or the phone. Passed me by without so much as an acknowledgement.

I struggled with that.

My wife tells me I’m crazy for looking people in the eye when I’m out walking, but to me it’s something I have to do. It’s my way of saying I deserve to be here, a declaration of worth about my existence. (Exactly why I feel that way is a long story, which I will skip for now.) So when people won’t look at me, I kind of feel slighted. Or insecure. Or whatever else my stupid brain churns up.

I wanted to take a guess as to why you wouldn’t look at me, but the truth is I haven’t the first dang clue as to what you were thinking. You didn’t know if I was going to crap my pants or pull a gun. You couldn’t have been sure if I’d smile at you or spit in your face. You had no idea what kind of person I am, despite my own self-perception that I’m the least threatening thing since the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. (Although we all kind of know how that one turned out.)

So you simply didn’t look. You stared ahead. You checked your phone. You counted cracks on the sidewalk.

Maybe you like that better than interacting with people. Maybe you do that with folks regardless of color. Maybe it’s because I’m older than you, and right now older people aren’t very kind to your generation – that whole “millennials and their phones” line of griping. Maybe it’s reverse racism, or something else that would allow me to go on my way and not think about you anymore than I already have.

Whatever the rationale, it bothered me, because from my perspective it seems like you shrank into something less when you saw me. And I guess I think that way because that’s how I’ve felt before.

I won’t lie – I’ve crossed the street when I’ve seen young black men who intimidated me. I’ve avoided eye contact with some young black men who looked me in the eye because something about the exchange made me feel uncomfortable. But I never really thought that you might feel the same way about me and people of my color.

After all, I don’t drive around waving a confederate flag, nor do I have a hooded robe in my house, but that doesn’t mean I am free from being stereotyped. I would imagine you might understand that.

I don’t know that I have a point here. I just needed to write this down, work through it in some way. Writing is how I make sense of the world most of the time, and I’ve revised this thing seven ways from Sunday. I still don’t feel like I’ve arrived at whatever mental destination I intended.

Guess I’ll just end with this:

To the young black man I crossed paths with yesterday, if my looking at you made you uncomfortable – the way I sometimes feel uncomfortable – then I apologize. I hope you made it wherever you were going safely, especially in this heat.

But I hope we can make eye contact if we cross paths again. If only so we can feel human together for just a second.

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