The racial divide in the small western Kansas town I grew up in was very evident. Our community was practically 50% Hispanic and 50% white. When many whites would reference the Hispanic community and their culture, it was never Hispanics, it was almost always the pronouns “they” or “their.” It was almost as if by not acknowledging the race, it didn’t exist beyond the many Mexican restaurants sprinkled along the main street in our small town.
I knew this racial divide existed, but internally this divide was never there. My best friend growing up was Hispanic. I spent many afternoons with him and his family. I never saw him as a different race. To me, he was just a person who I really enjoyed hanging out with.
When I look back on how race played a role in our schools and within our community while growing up, I regret that I didn’t take a stand then. I stood idly by watching this happen and wonder why. Any time the reference of “they” came up, and knowing who was being referenced, I didn’t say anything.
Why can’t people be treated like the people they are?
As I watch my oldest grow up, I see a bit of myself in him. His best friend is black in a largely white Kansas suburb. He has spent many afternoons over at his friend’s house playing, laughing, and enjoying being in his presence.
I vividly remember when I was my son’s age, sitting in front of my third-grade class during our school geography bee. I couldn’t tell you the question our group was asked but it was about current events. Each participant down the line did not know the answer until it got to me.
“The Million Man March,” I answered.
I was right.
It shocked many in the class, including my parents, that I knew this answer. It is one of the first news stories I remember as a kid. I remember watching the black community march on the National Mall to make a difference.
Recently, I was scrolling through YouTube and a thumbnail caught the attention of my 9-year-old. It was of one of the recent Black Lives Matter protests and showed man holding a sign.
“Dad, what does, ‘I can’t breath’ mean?”
It was at that moment I realized how much we have shielded him from the current events of our day. At his age I knew what the Million Man March was and stood for. Yet, he had to ask me what that sign meant.
At that point in time, I was still processing what I was witnessing on TV. I knew what was happening with the Black Lives Matter movement was exactly what needed to happen. Their voices needed and still, need to be heard. But inside part of me was wondering what I could do as a 30-something white guy who has what many call “privilege.”
I explained the death of George Floyd the best I could to my son. I explained that the black community, while free in the United States, is still fighting to have their voices heard and to feel as accepted in our nation as the rest of us.
I told him that one of the things that makes me proud to call him my son is that his best friend is black. That he doesn’t look at the color of one’s skin as something that makes them different than him or anyone else.
Without skipping a beat, I told him to do exactly what I wish I had done when I was his age: stand up if he sees someone being treated differently because of their race, sexuality, religious beliefs or for any reason. I told him that we will be seeing people standing on the corner in coming days, holding signs and protesting the injustices against race. We will honk and we will stand beside them to show our support for those people still fighting to be treated equally today.
“I know, Dad.”
That was all that I needed to hear. I just needed to that reassurance. That simple, “I know, Dad,” gave me hope that maybe there will be a day when all of this racial injustice will only be a part of the history taught in schools — a history that will make kids ask themselves much like I am today: Why?