Mark Boles doesn’t usually talk openly about race. But President Obama’s speech today about ‘shared experiences’ cut close to home.
Today was a seminal moment in history. Not since the Civil Rights Movement has this country been forced to look so deeply within itself and discuss race.
Today, the President of the United States used the office’s daily press briefing to make a surprise appearance to discuss what no one really wants to talk about. Race. He very candidly talked about his personal experiences with being a victim of racism and that it is a shared experience.
I rarely talk about my personal experiences with racism. Why? Because it hurts. It’s a constant reminder of inequities suffered. For years.
I rarely use this forum to talk about personal experiences that may be deemed political but I thought today I could add an exclamation point to the President’s thoughtful words. So I will write explicitly about my personal experiences. The only one I will leave off the table is what my ex-wife and I experienced with her own family when we were courting and would ultimately get married. My ex-wife’s family are tremendous people with considerable intellect and faith and were able to examine their attitudes from within and actually change their mindset and their beliefs. The same people who once said “But what about the kids” are now the most doting grandparents on the planet of two lovely mixed-race little girls (perhaps next to my Mom).
Keep in mind that I grew up with all privilege imaginable. I did not want for anything. I spent all with the exception of about 30 seconds of my academic career in prestigious private schools. I was afforded everything. Yacht clubs, tennis lessons, ski trips, you name it. Through genetic lottery I was born to an exceptional family on both sides who were trailblazers in fields such as architecture, politics, civil rights and academia. But none of that matters because I was all too often judged not by the content of my character but solely by the color of my skin.
The first moment for me where I really experienced the most explicit racism was when I was 15 years old. I spent the summers on the Cape with my Dad and grandparents. That summer I was working in Buildings & Grounds for the Cape Cod & Hyannis Railroad. It was then solely a tourist attraction. For years the Railroad had leased property from a neighboring business owner for parking. However the summer that I began working there, the government owned a closer good bit of property and sold it to the Railroad for a relative steal so long as the Railroad would take responsibility for clearing the land and creating sufficient entrance and egress. That was a part of my job, a job in which I would literally learn how to get my hands dirty.
One day, I noticed a nice Golden Retriever seeking solace from the heat underneath one of the cars parked on our property. Knowing a train was due back I tried to coax the dog out from underneath the car not wanting him to get run over. While I was lying on my stomach in the dirt trying to convince this dog to come out I hear behind me, “Hey Nigger! Get away from my dog! What are you doing, blackie?” I stood up to see a man who was clearly irate and reddened with anger. I tried to explain that I was trying to get his dog to come out because I didn’t want him to get run over when the man, still incensed took a swing at me. He missed, dragged his dog angrily by his collar and put him in his car, got in and then proceeded to try and run me over. My boss was in the B&G office not 10 yards away and called the police. The man as it turns out was the neighboring business owner who had lost the lease for parking. The police came and took my statement and asked if I wanted to file criminal charges to which being very scared I said no. Later I would be called by the district attorney’s office and asked to press civil charges. This would require me mid-school year going back to the Cape to stand before a Barnstable County Court judge and re-tell the events of that day in which I would be literally bullied by the defense attorney. A grown man, yelling at a 15 year old boy trying to get me to screw up while sitting in a witness chair. Everyone I worked with stood by my side while the man was pronounced guilty and sentenced to community service work with African American boys in the inner-city in Boston and was also requested to write a paper on what it meant to violate someone’s civil rights.
As my mother alluded to in a Facebook post, I was often followed in Bloomingdale’s by security as I wandered the store on the way to my step-father’s office who was the VP of Public Affairs.
I remember once being at my mother’s office on 9 West 57th Street when she was a corporate executive at Avon. It was across the street from Scandinavian Ski & Sports. I was getting ready for a ski trip and needed something. My mother gave me her gold Amex card and a note and phone number to call if there were any questions. I walked across the street and was immediately profiled. Keep in mind I was dressed in my school wear which was a crested blue blazer, khaki’s, dress shirt and tie and boat shoes. I chose whatever it was I needed and headed to the cashier. I handed them the credit card and note (this was a common practice among my peers). I was denied sale and sent on my way. Sheepishly I went back to my Mom’s office and told her what happened. It took her all of .02 seconds to storm across the street and give her a piece of her mind and loudly.
I recall working at Puritan Clothing on Cape Cod at the Hyannis Mall. I had to dress in dress pants or khakis, loafers, dress shirt and tie. I asked a gentleman if he needed help and was given a host of racial epithets for what I don’t know. My boss and mentor, Kerry Marchant, the man who taught me what customer service looked like let the gentleman find some items to purchase and told me to wait out of view in the tailor’s area near the register. The gentleman handed Kerry his Puritan charge card. At which point Kerry cut it in half kindly asked the gentleman to leave and that he was no longer welcome at any of the Puritan stores.
I can’t tell you how many cabs have passed me by both in NYC and Boston between the 80’s and 90’s to the point it became laughable. It was a running joke among my numerous caucasian friends who would have me hide behind a car while they hailed a cab. Funny, up to a point.
My friends unfortunately had to bear witness to even more explicit racism.
Driving down Main Street with my friend Jason in Waterville, Maine, he had the sunroof open. “NIGGER!” was shouted from an open window above. Not a pleasant experience for Jason. I was used to it.
Shortly after college I was with a whole host of my buddies. I’ve typically been the only black person in a room. In this instance we were in Woods Hole where my friend Jay was doing graduate work. His apartment neighbored a strip of buildings with various small businesses in them. It was an overcast day and being young and dumb we decided we would start drinking early while playing wiffle ball in the completely empty parking lot. The parking lot abutted a wooded area where all of my friends would “relieve” themselves. This was all fine and dandy until I did it. When we heard from behind us, “Hey blackie… Nigger! You can’t do that there!” At which point all of my friends (all Caucasian) turned and angrily approached the man. Him being fearful retreated inside and called the police. I took the time to tell all of my friends when the police arrived that I would do the talking. My friends were extraordinarily angry. I met the police and explained what we were doing and what had happened and said that my friends were just looking out for me. The police were very empathetic and explained that they told me that we needed to bring the party inside and that they would advise this gentleman that should he like to press charges against my friends and me that they would advise me to press civil rights charges against him. The matter went away.
When my ex-wife and I were dating we were walking with friends on our to some establishment near the Boston Garden. One of the friends we were with was a friend Joe who’s white and stands about 6’4”. It didn’t stop a group of white men we walked past to call me a nigger. Joe and I almost got into it with them but cooler heads prevailed thankfully to the female influence that accompanied us.
I’ve been denied opportunities for jobs, profiled, followed, told that there were no tables available. Every example the President cited, happens. All on the basis of race.
So when the President talks about shared “…experiences that don’t go away.” He’s speaks the truth.
As I author this blog post my good friend and high school classmate Dexter, posted this on Facebook.
“While I find nothing remarkable about what Obama said today (because I have lived it every day of my life), It never ceases to floor me that I’ve gotten the chance in my lifetime to see a President that looks like me, speak about something meaningful in my life from my perspective. I love this man… Ladies, you’re next (let’s hope).”
I know every one of my African American friends (both male and female) have all of their own stories. The culmination of them all if you put them all together would make me very sad. However one thing to notice about my experiences very often is that I had friends or colleagues who came to my defense, who shared in my experiences and sought to understand. I never asked them to fight my fight they simply stepped up when the time came with little regard for themselves. I am perpetually thankful for the love and support of my friends and past colleagues.
I’m personally thankful for his attempt today to start and navigate the conversation.
I implore anyone and everyone to read a book called “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele. It offers incredible (and scientific) insight into the phenomenon and perceptions of how we as humans address difference be that with race, gender or sexuality and how we might correct our feelings and behavior.
Originally published on seldomtypql.com
photo: dvidshub / flickr