As I do every evening, I was walking my faithful collie right outside my home last night. A pick-up truck drove–much too fast–past me, but because Tillie was safely out of the road, I barely noticed. Until it reached the crest of the hill beyond my house, slammed on its brakes, and someone yelled back loudly and menacingly at me, “F##king N-word Lover!” then laid rubber and sped off up the road.
My heart pounded as I raced back inside with Tillie and went around and locked all of my doors and windows. In three decades of living here I’d never felt so unsafe before. I was shocked, saddened, scared, but most of all, disgusted that such ugly public racism had invaded my peaceful little village. It was an apparent reference to the “Black Lives Matter” sign I had in my yard about three months ago, until it was stolen (pictured above.) The pick-up truck driver had apparently been carrying around his rage about my sign ever since then, which only made it more traumatic for me.
It was terribly jarring to hear that highly offensive racial epitaph used after so long. I used to hear it in my childhood, but never in my enlightened adult world of academia. How can anyone still be using that awful word in 2020? How dare he defile my street, my neighborhood, and my home with his ugly hate speech? I alternated between fear and anger the rest of the night, and then slept badly because every time Tillie heard something outside and “woofed” at it, I awoke with a start and couldn’t get back to sleep.
Today I contemplated reporting it to the police, but then found myself wondering how they would react to an incident originating with a “Black Lives Matter” sign. And then it hit me: I’d had the tiniest, most insignificant, dose of what our Black brothers and sisters live with every day of their lives. Every damn day. I hesitate to compare anything about my privileged white male existence to theirs, but at the same time it taught me something that I feel like I need to write about. I had one really minor incident. Their experiences are inexorably bound to the generational trauma that has been inflicted on Black Americans. Their lives are affected every day and in every way by our deeply racist policies and practices.
Imagine feeling fearful every time a car slows or stops near you. Imagine the terror you feel when pulled over by a cop – every Black American is haunted by the possibility that any traffic stop gone wrong could result in their death. That has never crossed my mind when I get pulled over. I recently learned of a deeply distressing experience of our Black students at the University where I work: when they visit the local Wal-Mart, they are required to surrender their backpacks, even though the White students never have to. When our Director of Diversity and Inclusion (himself a Black man) inquired about the policy, the Wal-Mart manager said “Yes, that is exactly what we do.” THAT is the air our Black students breathe.
The peaceful privileged air I breathe was disrupted by this ugly incident last night, and yet, I had the luxury of considering going to the police with my fears. Few, if any, of my Black brothers and sisters would even consider that. By bitter experience they have learned that the police are there as their foes, not as their protectors. Where are they supposed to turn?
I had a one small very unsettling experience. What if that represented my whole life? What if I, my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents had been battling that racial hatred for generations? I was terrified last evening as those hateful words hung in the night air. But how terrified were Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Phillip Pannell and countless others in their final moments before having their lives snuffed out for the crime of being Black in America?
Having to live in that world is the reason the Black Lives Matter protest movement MUST exist. That is what Colin Kaepernick was trying to tell us. That is why I am an ally of that movement. That is why I will not be deterred by this incident. And THAT is why “All Lives Matter” is NEVER the proper response to “Black Lives Matter.” Never say that to me again.