I don’t know that I have ever told this story to anyone, other than my wife, but there are a handful of people around my age who may remember it well.
I was 7 years old when I first heard the word “nigger.” In fact, it was my introduction to the very existence of racism. It happened during an unfortunate event in my school hallway.
I left class to use the restroom. As I proceeded down the cold, empty, sonorous hallway, with its freshly-waxed tile floor and metal lockers, I saw two boys at the drinking fountain. One was a boy in my grade, who I knew. His name was Brad. The other was an older boy. A black boy who I didn’t know by name. He had a huge afro, and wore some colorful, polyester threads. He was a perfect specimen of the late 1970s. I thought he looked super cool because he reminded me of the guys on the Earth, Wind & Fire records in our living room.
They were talking, but I was too far away to hear their words. A moment later I heard a wave of air aggressively rushing through the vocal chords of the white boy, as he was launched into the air, courtesy of the swift thrust of a foot into his midriff. The black boy kicked him so hard that he flew. I was equally confused and impressed. A moment later, the halls flooded with children and teachers.
After a few minutes of bustling near the fountain, the white boy was being walked down the hall by an adult, with care and comfort, while the black boy was being berated during an abrasive interrogation by another adult.
This set the tone for how the event was received by us, the impressionable children in the hallway, in suggesting that the black boy was a monster, and that the white boy was a victim.
The details of the event would never be disclosed to us, and we would be left to craft our own stories of what happened, courtesy of fear-based rumors and judgment-driven fallacies. But given the role drinking fountains played in segregation in years recent to this event, hindsight would suggest some likely transcripts.
The black boy’s name was Rodney, which I didn’t know until later. What I also learned later is that Rodney kicked the white boy in the stomach for calling him a nigger.
I remember hearing this word, and having no idea what it meant. When I found out, it afforded me little clarity about what happened. It was just a word with a definition; a vague, ambiguous, lightweight definition. I was told that it simply meant “a black person.” So, I thought, “why would Rodney be so angry because he was called a black person? I mean…he was a black person.”
I have a loose recollection of the stories I heard during the rest of that day, but they basically amounted to how Rodney was a troublemaker who often started fights. How he was a bad kid. And how the white boy was a victim. I now understand this to be a direct result of the aforementioned tone, set by the adults in the hallway after the event—a form of systemic racism, be it intentional, circumstantial, or subliminal.
What I have subsequently realized is that this single event not only introduced me to racism and the word “nigger,” but also colored my perception of black people for years to come. For a long time I was irrationally frightened of anyone with dark skin. I was afraid that they, too, might kick me in the stomach. Or worse. Because no one had explicitly told me differently, because my only experience to reference was one of racist rhetoric, and because I spent my childhood in predominantly-white neighborhoods and schools. Black culture was almost entirely off of my radar.
I wonder how many children in that hallway carried this story with them through parts of their lives. How many still carry it.
This is how racism begins for some white people. An event like this is filed away with some imposed filter that muddies the truth. Then it subtly surfaces throughout our lives in the form of microaggressions and profiling. And for those who feed it, into stronger forms of intentional hatred and oppression.
Most white people struggle with the idea that there is systemic racism and that we are personally responsible for fueling it. It stings when you consciously see yourself as an ally, and then find yourself labeled an oppressor. It’s highly uncomfortable. So people avoid it.
White people are uncomfortable merely at the mention of race. And avoidance of that reflection is precisely what exacerbates and extends the life cycle of systemic racism. For human beings to move beyond this oppressive system, white people must acknowledge and heal our internal racial biases. The system thrives on a continued denial by white people that we are contributors.
It hurts to truly own this. To look deep inside and say “yeah, I do have some internal racial biases that I need to unpack and heal.” But hear this: I guarantee that our suffering in this journey is infinitesimal when compared to the suffering people of color feel in simply being alive in a society that oppresses them every day.
So how do we get past this? We do the fucking work. We get uncomfortable. We talk to each other. We grow. We make sure our white neighbors aren’t the cops who murder their daughters’ boyfriends because they’re black, and we sure as shit make sure they aren’t the jurors who refuse to convict them.
Through my own deep work, I uncovered the story of Rodney and the drinking fountain. It was a big source of bullshit that I carried with me, subconsciously muddying my lens of the world. It felt outstanding to unpack it. I also work every day to make sure I unearth any other dark underpinnings, hiding deep in my subconscious.
I don’t do this because I want some sort of badge. I do this because I don’t want to be an asshole. And I share it here because we white people need to work together to figure this shit out already. It is an unfathomable absurdity that we haven’t yet conquered racism, in both its subtleties and its systemic underpinnings of society.
Find your Rodney. Find your drinking fountain. Learn from them. Be a better human being. This is how we make the world a better place.