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“Of course I knew my skin was a different color. But I didn’t think that that made us better or worse.”

Holding hands.
Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Holding hands.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Vance, early 30s, Northeast US

It was the last day of summer camp and Sarah, my boss, handed me the keys to her brand new Sebring convertible. “Get cookies,” she ordered, and then, studying the horde of hungry kids eagerly awaiting the rare dessert, she added, “lots of them.”

I’d gotten my driver’s license only a few days earlier and couldn’t believe my luck. I was wearing my “staff” t-shirt and a pair of old khakis, and I eagerly took the keys, put the top down, and peeled out of the parking lot. I considered putting on some music, but didn’t know my way around the car—so I decided to drive the few blocks in silence.

I couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet away from camp when I spotted my friend Michael. I pulled up next to him, beaming.

Before he could say anything, blue and red lights flashed in my rearview mirror and I jolted as the police siren gave a few loud blares.

The cop walked towards us, and with a perfunctory look at Michael, ordered: “You might want to move along, son.”

He asked for my license, and I pulled it out slowly, knowing not to make any sudden moves.

“Is this your car?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said. “It’s my boss’ car. She asked me to…”

But he cut me off before I had a chance to finish. “Yeah,” he said, “we’ll see about that.”

And just as I began to panic—just as trickles of cold sweat started forming on the back of my neck—I spotted Sarah running towards us at full speed.

“Officer, is there a problem? I lent him the car,” she said, breathless and concerned.

And with that, he handed me back my license. “I thought he may have stolen the vehicle, ma’am,” he said, turning and walking to his car without another word.

Michael and Sarah and I—we all worked at the same place, dressed the same way, and liked the same music. In fact, we grew up in the same small town, and Michael and I even went to the same school. We were so similar, with one notable exception: I am black.

Growing up, my father kept us kids close. He raised us to believe that we could be anyone and achieve anything, and he tried to keep us safe from the world—from the looks and the words that would eventually be hurled our way. I feel that in many ways, he set us up for failure.

My race was a slow unveiling; the first time I heard the word “nigger” was when my younger next-door neighbor called me it. The thing is, I don’t think he said it to hurt me or as an insult. At 5, he was just repeating what he’d heard at home. I went to my dad, confused, and asked him what it meant. He did the same thing he always did when I encountered unknown words: he handed me the dictionary.

I spent about an hour flipping through pages and found nothing. I think he’d known all along, and was trying to buy himself some time to come up with a good explanation for what I’d heard—one that wouldn’t hurt me, scar me, or confuse me even further.

“It’s not in the dictionary,” I said. And then, my father had the unenviable task of explaining to a six-year-old child about our history, about our skin color and what it means to people, and about the fact that some may have certain assumptions and prejudices about people who look like us.

Until then, believe it or not, I had been oblivious to race. Of course, I knew that my skin was a different color than some of my classmates, and I knew that our one Asian classmate—who also happened to be our one Jewish classmate—had eyes that looked different from mine. But I didn’t think that that made us better or worse. I just thought it made us, us.

Things only got more complicated from there. When he was 14 years old, my friend Daniel and his two older brothers visited Washington, DC, to attend a family funeral. As they waited for everyone to get ready, they decided to walk to the corner store for ice cream. The three of them then sat poolside, killing time and enjoying their treat.

A police officer patrolling the neighborhood noted that they were all wearing similar jackets, and decided that they were in a gang. He stopped them and had ordered them to put their hands against the wall when their father overheard and finally intervened.

We talked about what had happened in hushed tones—the unfairness of the situation settling into our pores, the offense of it distressing our stomachs. We were eating ice cream, Daniel kept saying over and over again, as if to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

And his story wasn’t unique. We heard them all the time—and they slowly became cautionary tales. Mothers and fathers would come home, hug their children tight, and tell them to behave, to have some sense to them, to stay out of trouble and harm’s way.

It wasn’t until that day—as I sat in a borrowed car, going to buy cookies for a bunch of summer camp kids—that everything I’d heard and seen finally hit home. I didn’t get the benefit of the doubt, like my friends Michael and Sarah did—or like any other white 16-year-old driving a nice car in that area would have.

This experience made me hyper-aware of myself and my surroundings. What am I wearing? What time of the day or night is it? Is this a predominantly white neighborhood? Is my music too loud and what message is it conveying? I realized and internalized the fact that some people, by virtue of my skin color alone, saw me as a threat.

Because I’m constantly at the mercy of someone else’s perception of me, I never really feel safe. And it often feels futile—trying to justify, explain, and convince others of my reality, trying to express my pain and heartbreak in a way that resonates and stands up to public scrutiny. My reality should not be invalidated, dismissed, or questioned because it doesn’t match someone else’s.

My fiancé and I plan to have children, and these things weigh on me heavily. Barack Obama being elected into the presidency, for me, was a sign of hope and progress. But all you have to do to see the limitations of that hope is look through the comments section of a photo of Michelle Obama. All you have to do is switch on the television and realize how deeply Donald Trump’s racist and divisive rhetoric is resonating with voters.

Nonetheless, I choose to believe that we’re making steps forward. President Obama sets precedent for my kids that they, too, can become the president of the United States of America—if they work hard, study hard, stay out of trouble, and if they don’t get suspended, arrested, or killed for being black, first.

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