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‘What’d you steal this time?’

July 5, 2012

(A former colleague of mine sent this to me today. It was written by her nephew. It is shared here with his permission.)   

By Kenny Wiley

There’s an old joke that isn’t really very funny at all.

What do you call a black man in a suit?

This past Sunday night, I was running down a street near Harvard Yard, trying to get to Harvard Sq. Station in time to catch a bus. I was wearing, backwards, my Houston Texans hat, a “Cosby Show” T-shirt, tennis shoes, and khaki shorts. I had my Mizzou “Summer Welcome 2010” bag over my shoulder. I wasn’t sprinting, but I was moving pretty quickly (for me, anyway). I passed a group of four people, strangers who looked somewhere between 17 and 21—two women and two guys.

As I ran by, one of the guys, a white guy, yelled out, “Hey, bro, you running from the cops or something?” One of the women quickly added, “What’d you steal this time?”

Surely, I didn’t hear correctly. I stopped and turned around. “Are you kidding me?” I asked.  The group looked a) tipsy, and b) unapologetic. “We’re just messing around, man,” one said. “Hey, we saw a black guy running at night, so why wouldn’t we say that?” said another, indifferently.

The exchange quickly grew heated, with me trying to explain to them why their comments were inappropriate. They weren’t having any of it. They refused to understand why them suggesting that a young black man running down the street must be evading the cops was a problem. They told me I needed to lighten up, learn to take a joke, and “get over” myself. Rather than start a physical confrontation, I decided to walk on to the station.

The whole episode took maybe sixty seconds.

To me, the analysis of what happened is simple and straightforward. Four people, none of whom were black, saw a young black guy running down the street late at night. Because they were in a group, or they’d been drinking, or whatever, they decided to say some dumb things.

But discussing anything about race in the 21st century is rarely simple and straightforward. The people didn’t call me the N-word, or darkie, or any other slur.  They probably all have at least a handful of black friends. Indeed, one of the guys looked Latino. They didn’t try to beat me up. There are other possible explanations: maybe it was my age, or my hat being on backwards. Maybe it was how fast I was running. Maybe if one of my white peers was dressed the same way with the same bag, the group says exactly the same things.


But probably not.

It wasn’t easy to write about the incident. It was hard for two reasons: One, do I really have anything to complain about? Was it really that bad? Two, other black and brown folks have it much worse than I do.  I am a 24-year-old black male who attends graduate school at Harvard, one of the best schools in the world. My father is a lawyer, as was my mother. I had most everything I wanted growing up. I come home to a comfortable living situation and as much food as I want, assuming I can figure out how to cook it. In short, this is, for some, the best time in U.S. history to have dark skin.

For some.

The reason Sunday night’s incident matters is because to the group of four who yelled those things at me, it didn’t matter that I’m student body president-elect at Harvard Divinity School. It didn’t matter that I’m the soon-to-be Ministerial Intern at a largely white church less than a mile from where we stood. It didn’t matter how many degrees my parents earned. None of it mattered. All that mattered was my skin color, that it was night, and that I was running. And for black and brown men and women who are targeted throughout our country, sometimes that’s all that matters for them, too.

Oh, the joke. What do you call a black man in a suit?

If you don’t know, look it up. It’s a word I don’t say.

My Unitarian Universalist faith teaches me that every person has inherent worth and dignity. Every person matters, and every person has some good in them.  I don’t hate those four strangers who loudly suggested that I must be a criminal, “joking” or not.  I don’t suddenly hate white people because of the actions of a few. Going after a whole group because of the actions of some is exactly what I’m trying to stop.  My faith teaches me that nobody is beyond reconciliation, beyond redemption. I do not hate them.

What I want is for us to stop pretending. I want us to stop pretending that racism is over. If it were, tipsy strangers wouldn’t have heckled me. I want us to stop pretending that it’s not harder to be female than male. That it’s not harder to be gay than straight. I want us to stop pretending that we live in an equal society. We don’t. It isn’t one person’s fault, or one group’s fault. Instead of blaming or evading, we can encourage and confront, together.Instead of pretending that all these ‘isms’ are over, we can say “Things are better than they’ve ever been, and there’s so much more to be done.” I don’t think that’s so bad.

Why not now?

Since Sunday night’s incident, I’ve been listening a lot to Keb’ Mo’s version of America the Beautiful. Keb’ Mo is black, and clearly loves this country. I know I do. But three days before America’s birthday, I was made to feel like I didn’t really belong, albeit briefly. I know better. Keb’ Mo helped me remember. How many people with darker skin are made to feel as I felt? I don’t know. But I think we can all do something about it.

May God shed his grace on thee.

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