My dad is black and I’m mixed race but I look white, which, I’ve come to realize, means I’m not really black. If you’re a mix of things and wondering what you are, just look at the way the world holds you…
(If that’s too obtuse, think of the costumes you’ve worn on Halloween. I tried to be Don King one year and it didn’t connect. I was Cassius Clay another year. No dice. But Braveheart and Captain Morgan, they landed just fine.)
In my childhood, my dad was always talking about “the system.”
Don’t get caught up in the system, he’d say. Once you’re in the system, it’s all over.
When we started driving, his warnings got more frequent, but me and my brother (also pretty white-looking), would roll our eyes. We didn’t have time to worry about the system. We had hijinx to do.
We zipped down the backroads in search of the biggest bumps we could launch off. We smashed mailboxes. We egged cars. We spun doughnuts in the parking lot. We wrestled on the roof of the car while someone else drove (Seriously?). We blasted our radio in the drive thru. We drank and drove, way more than we should have, often while doing all of these other things.
And we got caught.
The cops were always dicks but they never arrested us. We never found our way into the system. No guns drawn, no records ruined. We just had to pour out our beer, promise to not smoke anything more on the way home, and mostly just wait out an annoying lecture.
One time a state trooper yelled at me for speeding and he was so close to my face, the brim of his hat kept hitting my forehead. The whole time he yelled at me, I was thinking about my beer under the driver’s seat, tipped over and pouring out.
The point is we were stupid. We were doing everything in our power to land ourselves in the system. Dad’s warnings didn’t work on us. They didn’t even make sense to us.
It wasn’t until later in life, after talking with my black friends in college, and my black cousins, and my black neighbors, and black dads in the dad’s club, and my black drinking buddies, and the black guy at the bus stop… that I realized what my dad’s obsession with the system was about.
He’d been giving me “The Talk.”
The talk is usually delivered by a black mom, but my mom was white so my dad did it instead.
He’d make us look right at him. Then he’d sit on the edge of the couch like he was in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t fucking around.
You get pulled over, I don’t care what you did.
You keep your hands on the wheel. Like this. Both hands.
You move slowly. Speak when you’re spoken to.
Yes, sir. No, sir.
Other than that you don’t say anything.
We made fun of him once we got outside.
We didn’t realize he was trying to save our lives.
And maybe he did.
Or maybe we were lucky.
Or maybe the cops in our town were cool.
But I can tell you this: the people who have the same stories as me — near misses, hijinx without handcuffs — they look a lot like me, people who could pull off a pretty convincing Braveheart.
And the ones who didn’t get off so easily, who got questioned a bit longer, who got a mark on their record, whose names made it into the newspaper, who spent a night in jail, who were accused of casing their own house while sitting parked in their driveway, well, they look a lot like my dad.
Put another way:
I know I’m black because my father gave me “The Talk.”
And I know I’m white because he probably didn’t have to.
How lucky are you?