On a winter’s night in 2004, I was driving down Middlebelt Road in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan with two black teenagers—my daughter Akira, and my nephew Nadeem. As I approached the freeway onramp and signaled to turn, I spotted a police cruiser approaching from the opposite direction, and simultaneously caught a flash in my rearview mirror of Nadeem ducking down in the back seat.
“What are you doing?” I asked, slightly irritated at his knee-jerk need to disappear.
“Auntie, they don’t play in Livonia. I don’t want you to get stopped ‘cause of me.”
The ensuing conversation stung me. Nadeem made it clear how much he hated police. Hate. My Nadeem, the beautiful brown baby boy I’ve watched grow into a handsome, articulate, intelligent, kind-hearted young man could not or would not believe me when I explained to him that all police are not evil.
He proceeded to describe in detail the half dozen times he’d been pulled over for no apparent reason in the past six months. The last stop, in Livonia, was the most ridiculous. The officer actually asked him, “What are you doing here?” No taillight out. No expired tags. No moving violation. No pretense of a crime committed in the area by a black male suspect. Just Driving While Black in suburbia. DWB. It’s a cliché I am well aware of, but never experience myself.
I don’t get pulled over by the police without reason. Ever. I am an ethnically mixed (black/white) woman with white skin and blue eyes, and the police don’t ever suspect me of anything. I was once pulled over past midnight on I-134 in Glendale, California for weaving in and out of my lane while driving fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit. (I had unbuckled my seatbelt and bent to reach for a Luther Vandross CD which had fallen on the floor.)
When the young white officer who pulled me over approached my window and politely asked if I had been drinking, I chuckled and proclaimed matter-of-factly that I do not drink alcohol. When he asked for my license and registration, I stopped laughing. I had recently misplaced my license, and my out-of-state registration was expired. I smiled sheepishly and explained to the officer that I had just moved to California and seemed to have misplaced my driver’s license while unpacking. He glanced briefly at the expired registration (not in my name) and muttered something to me about the state law regarding change of address. To make a long story short — I drove away without a single citation.
Weaving. Speeding. No license. No seatbelt. No proof I owned the car. Nadeem would have gone to jail.
In America it is an unearned privilege not to fear or hate the police—a privilege I do not take for granted. I want that privilege for my nephew, and for all youngsters like him who are under siege in their own communities. But, that is a privilege I cannot grant; only good police officers can do that. Unfortunately, Nadeem is not likely to come in contact with the good ones. I tried to explain that to him.
“I have several friends who are policemen, Nadeem. They are good people you will never meet because they wouldn’t pull you over without cause.”
He considered my point, and for a moment I thought I saw a light in his eyes—a light of recognition that what I’d said was true. The light flickered briefly, then died.
“I hate ‘em. All of ‘em.”
Nothing I said changed his mind. Nadeem felt he couldn’t afford to trust any of them. To do so would mean letting down his guard, and for a young black man in America, that, in his estimation, would not be conducive to survival.
The following afternoon, as I was seated in front of the television unraveling Nadeem’s tightly-braided cornrows, a news report flashed on the screen. Two white Detroit police officers had been shot in cold blood during a routine traffic stop. The suspect, a 23-year-old black man, was in custody.
Nadeem was quiet.
I mourned the tragic loss of life. “God, I feel for their families,” I muttered aloud, referring to the dead police officers, aged twenty-six and twenty-two.
“Yeah,” Nadeem grunted. “His too.” He was referring to the perpetrator, a chocolate-brown man with a large unkempt afro who was shown standing in court, tears streaming from his eyes, sadly insisting to the judge that he hadn’t meant to kill the officers. I wondered if my nephew could identify with the kind of rage required to empty a gun into two human beings. Nadeem answered my question before I could ask it. “I bet they pulled him over for no good reason.” The coldness in his tone alarmed me.
In that moment I prayed silently that by some miracle my nephew’s heart might somehow be unburdened. My prayer was answered within the hour, in a manner, and under circumstances I could never have anticipated.
I do not live in Michigan. I had traveled to Detroit from my home in Los Angeles to visit with my mother-in-law. For Mom’s 74th birthday the kids and I were renovating her bathroom and kitchen. Our plan for that afternoon was to put in a few hours of painting. When I had loosened Nadeem’s last braid, and he had combed out his hair into a rather large “fro”, I sent him and Akira to the hardware store for some Spackle and a roll of masking tape. During their errand, something hurtful happened to them that brought tears to all of our eyes in the retelling.
At the hardware store they turned down an aisle in the paint department and happened upon a young white woman and her six or seven-year-old daughter. The woman’s attention was focused on a display of paint swatches—she was apparently trying to decide on a color and was intently absorbed in the task. As Nadeem and Akira neared her, the woman looked up, saw the two brown-skinned teenagers (and, I suspect, Nadeem’s big hair), grabbed her daughter’s hand and rushed from the aisle. She actually ran from them.
Question: Who runs away? Answer: Someone afraid.
Who’s afraid? Someone threatened. Who threatened that woman? Two teenagers participating in a gift of love for their 74-year-old grandmother. What better symbol is there of the sad state of race relations in America than that two-second encounter?
What is saddest is that Akira and Nadeem have been raised to believe that all people, regardless of skin color, are members of the same human family—that we are all not only equal, but connected. These two teenagers have known, loved and trusted people of diverse ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds since they were infants, so it creates a peculiar dissonance for them when they are faced with the reality that not all human beings believe or behave the same.
When that white woman chose to run away from those brown children, she injured them in ways she will never understand. I have no idea what her own child learned in that moment, but I know mine were wounded. Yet, despite the pain and anger that kind of unwarranted rejection always brings, they raised their eyebrows at one another, swallowed their pain and went on about the business of Spackle shopping.
As Akira and Nadeem stood in the checkout line waiting for their turn at the register, a tall white stranger entered the store. The man took one look at Nadeem’s big hair, contorted his face into an expression of disgust, glared angrily into Nadeem’s eyes, then shook his head with obvious contempt. The stranger then walked boldly past, leaving my nephew stunned. Though Nadeem has been contending with bigotry his entire young life, for some reason the two incidents back to back were more than he could take.
“I felt my heart drop,” he told me. “I felt a light go off inside me. For real. I promised myself I would not let another white person hurt my feelings—ever. I was beginning to think maybe I should just hate them all.”
No sooner had the thought materialized, Nadeem looked up to see another white man passing the checkout line on his way into the store—only, this man did something quite out of the ordinary. The stranger smiled warmly at my nephew, quietly said, “How’s it going?” and walked on past him and down the plumbing aisle.
“He’ll never know what he did,” Nadeem said quietly. “That man came across my path at exactly the right moment, you know? It might sound crazy, but his sincerity did something I can’t explain. You were right, Auntie. Some white people are all right.” One corner of Nadeem’s mouth turned up in an acquiescent half-smile. “Some policemen might be too.”
A wounded heart, salved with a random, tiny and seemingly insignificant act of kindness.
That stranger will never know what he did for the heart of one young black man in America—a young man whose outlook was changed by a few words spoken by a stranger in passing. Not an exaggerated high five and a patronizing “Yo, what’s happenin’, bro?” but a quiet and sincere, “How’s it going?” Just a tiny act of humanity with the power to restore a young black man’s faith in the human family.
Of course it is silly and irresponsible to conclude from the above true story that the ugly, insidious and far-reaching nature of systemic racism can be solved by white folks randomly smiling at every black black person they see. (That’s a scary, Twilight Zonish thought actually.) The point of the story is that no matter what role (if any) you are currently playing in the fight to dismantle systemic racism — an equally important battle to wage is the one in that organ behind your ribcage.