I understand that I’ll never understand: a statement which might be tough to fully grasp, but now more than ever I feel it’s a statement more of us need to proclaim. Consider it the emotional equivalency of saying that I know I’ll never know it all, something even the greatest intellectual minds hold near and dear. It’s the admission that despite how hard I try to understand, I never truly can. In layman’s terms: empathy vs. sympathy.
In recent days, I’ve found myself reflecting inwards a lot. The murders of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of ignorance, has caused me to really dive into what my part is to play in seeking justice and equality for all. While nearly everyone I know took to the streets to protest or at the very least took to social media to disseminate the cause’s message; I did not. I counted my financial contribution to legal defense funds as my piece, and felt all too reassured that I had done enough. But in the deepest depths of me I know there’s more to give.
So let me state as follows: I understand that I’ll never understand, and I’m sorry for ever believing that I understood what it was to be Black in America.
You see, I grew up in Washington Heights; a neighborhood just north of Harlem which is known for producing professional baseball players and the rapper who made “This Is Why I’m Hot”. My mother is the product of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants and my father is a White truck driver from the Midwest. If MTV’s short-lived reality show “Washington Heights” taught the world anything, its that my community is one of proud Latino immigrants and their descendants, just like my family. For most of my life, I had no concept of racial inequality because my half-white self was considered the “racial diversity” in every school I’d ever attended.
Racism in my eyes was an antiquated ideology that we read about in history textbooks, and was far too often made into a joke by my friends and I. All of my idols were Black men and women in the world of professional sports and entertainment. The first articles of clothing I purchased as a child with my allowance money, were a pair of Rocawear jean shorts, a Phat Farm polo shirt, and a replica G-Unit chain that would spin around my neck when I’d sneak it into my elementary school lunch room. I idolized Black culture from a young age, and in later years used that as a guise when being accused of my own prejudices.
Despite my hispanic heritage, I was born with fair skin and blonde hair. I might’ve been raised by my mother’s very Puerto Rican family, but I shared my father’s Irish last name. My sense of self differed greatly from how the world saw me, and for years I allowed myself to act blind to the privileges which were afforded to me because of my outward appearance, simply because it didn’t align with my desire to look more like my family and friends. Looking back at all the times when I shot down the notion that my skin color had anything to do with my standing in the world, I’m appalled and disgusted.
Despite not being present for most of my childhood, I’d say my father and I have a better relationship today than at any point in my life. But in late 2016 a single statement he made jeopardized all of the progress we had made. I knew for a very long time that our political beliefs didn’t align; it was to be expected of two men born and raised in drastically different circumstances. I had heard him make loads of racist jokes in the past, and in my own ignorance recited them plenty until someone stood up to me and expressed their discomfort with it. So I was well aware that in a phone call with him, feeling emboldened by our current administration, there was always a chance I’d hear worse. I had just finished inviting him to my graduation from college that coming Spring, when he went off on a tangent about something he had heard on Patriot Radio that morning. It ended with a proud declaration that the President-elect would “get rid of those beaners, wetbacks, and spics”. For those of you unfamiliar with those terms, they’re all racial slurs reserved for people of hispanic heritage…like myself. I ended the conversation, ignored his calls for the better part of 6 months, and harbored a level of resentment for him that no amount of missed-birthdays could ever touch. I wore it on my sleeve, and brought it up when my Black friends told stories of times they were called racial slurs throughout their lives. I claimed victimhood in the same way because I was angry. How could my father use those words at all, let alone on the phone with his hispanic son? Did he forget? And it was in that train of thought that I realized, he hadn’t forgotten, he had just always viewed me in the same way the rest of the world did: as a white man. He didn’t intend on overtly spewing hate speech to anyone who’d take offense to it, he had intended on conversing with a fellow white man who might see it the same way. My uncomfortable conversation was nothing like what my Black friends had gone through; in my “aggressor’s” eyes I wasn’t a target I was a sounding board and that’s a very big difference.
In the time since then, our relationship has been mended again. I realize today that it is not my job to cast judgement, nor is it my place to chastise a man for differing beliefs. Moreover, as the lone minority in this man’s world, I’m only hurting my own cause by abandoning him in an atmosphere of likeminded individuals. My duty is to make my white father proud of his hispanic son. My role to play in his life is that of an educator and a positive reminder of what a person with fewer privileges can be, just as those less privileged than I have been for me.
I’ve never been denied an opportunity because of my first or last name. I’ve never been treated poorly because of how I look. I’ve never had to fear for my life during a routine traffic stop. I have been granted the same white privileges that I’ve spent years accosting others for taking advantage, and I refused to own up to them just the same.
I’d like to apologize to the Black community as a whole; for ever believing that I understood what it was like to be Black in America. I’d like to thank my family and friends for helping me to become a better man and shed the veil of ignorance I lived behind for far too long. Dr. King once spoke the words: “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”, and I’m so appreciative of the incredible men and women in my life who have taken the time to show me a better way. I implore those of you reading this to be that same beacon of light to those who are misguided and ignorant in your own life.
Lastly I’d like to issue a challenge to anyone who might read this, to own up to your privileges, come clean about your racial biases and missteps, and accept before your brothers and sisters:
I understand that I’ll never understand.