By Dawn Onley
When I was a young teenage girl, growing up in what was then a fairly rural part of Northwestern Maryland, a white boy around 11 years old called me the “N” word one summer day. I told him to shut up, but when he used it again, I told him he was talking about himself.
He stared at me as if he could spit and then he said: “If Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have freed you, you’d be picking cotton in my backyard right now.”
It stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t done anything to him. I had simply rode my bike up his street, which was a block away, in the way that carefree, 13-year-old girls do, and he wanted me to know he wasn’t fond of that.
“Stay on your own block,” he said.
He wasn’t a stranger; I had played ball with him before. He had a bad temper, which usually flared when he lost at something, and he was the neighborhood bully.
Still, it was the first time he had hurled racist language my way.
His words stung, but I wasn’t scared of him and I was too angry to cry. I looked up the street to see if anyone was out. I didn’t see anyone. Not trusting that I could physically beat him and not seeing help in case I couldn’t, I made a calculated decision to ride away as he walked across the street approaching me. I heard his laughter and taunts as I pedaled towards home.
He became a police officer. I think about him sometimes and wonder what he would say to me today if I saw him again; whether he still harbors the same feelings about people who look like me as he’s out patrolling the streets. Whether he remembers. It’s something I could never forget.
Racism, like all other forms of hatred whether insidious or overt, is a learned behavior. Kids aren’t born racist. At his young age, it is likely he heard a family member use the “N” word, for him to use it with such ease. It’s likely he heard someone turn the phrase “picking cotton in my backyard” before he uttered it.
It was a nasty experience for sure, but far from the only racist encounter I experienced as a child or young adult. There was my piano teacher’s mom who shouted racist epithets at me during one piano practice. There was the time I covered a Ku Klux Klan rally as a young reporting intern. There were tons of racial jokes over the years — from classmates to colleagues — which were usually said from the comfort of a majority perch, sometimes even a supervisory one.
I think about my neighborhood bully who became a cop when I see news accounts of unarmed black men getting murdered on the streets by police officers. Black men who were going about their daily lives, not breaking any laws, like Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. or Philando Castille, who was shot dead in a car with his fiancé and her young child at a traffic stop in Minnesota.
I wonder whether these cops that I see in flash images on the TV screen and on my newsfeed also harbored negative feelings toward black people when they were growing up. I wonder if they bring these prejudices to their jobs while policing minority communities.
I also think of all of the stories that will never be told. All of the incidents that were not caught on camera for the world to see. All of the black lives that didn’t matter to the ones who so callously took them; the 102 unarmed black people who died last year at the hands of the police; how unarmed blacks were killed at 5 times the rate of unarmed whites, according to the web site MappingPoliceViolence.org, which was started last year by Sam Sinyangwe, a mid-twenties researcher and activist after realizing that there were statistics on all types of violent crimes yet none on police shootings. He created the first national database of police killings in the United States.
What he found was that only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015, where an officer killed an unarmed black person, resulted in that officer being charged with a crime. Out of the 10, only two of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of the officers involved.
This should be infuriating not just to the black community, but to anyone who values truth and justice.
As I fluctuate between anger and complete and utter melancholy, I know something good will come from all of this. I feel that deep down within me. It’s the optimist in me. It’s the hope that’s planted in my DNA. Even in times of despair. It’s what I cling to when unarmed black men are killed by police and when innocent police officers at a protest rally in Dallas are killed as well.
“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide, we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
When we feel anger, hurt, uncertainty and despair, let not our hearts be disheartened. Let us cling to faith and to hope. Let us never forget that love is the antidote to hate. Especially during the times when love is the hardest thing to do.