In the past week, my wife and I enjoyed a couple simple activities that make our lives rich – we’ve gone jogging a couple times, and then went kayaking over the weekend to do some bird watching along the St. Mary’s River shore.
Not once did the matter of my skin color enter into my thoughts as a factor that might impact my enjoyment of these things. Yet for African American friends of mine, such simple things are just not so simple.
And now the nation knows that jogging while black, or bird-watching while black can be added to the list of not-so-simple things.
Ahmaud Arbery went jogging on February 23rd, and never made it back to his Georgia home. The unarmed 25-year-old couldn’t outrun two men in a pickup who hunted him down saying he looked suspicious (but of course he did…he’s a black man running on a street. What normal black person would do that?) We only know of Ahmaud’s death because of a video that surfaced and went viral on May 5th.
On Memorial Day, Christian Cooper, a black man birdwatching in a secluded part of Central Park in New York City, crossed paths with a woman walking her dog. When he asked the woman to put her dog on a leash (which signs in the area said to do), as the conversation ratcheted up, he pulled out his camera to record the interaction (because he knew what was coming next).
“I’m going to call the cops,” she said, pulling out her phone, “and tell them an African American man is threatening my life.” Which she then proceeded to do while he stood there, quietly filming, even as she began screaming hysterically into the phone, “I’m being threatened!…Send the cops immediately!”
For me as a white person, these ordinary activities remain just that…ordinary. They’re just small pleasures I can mindlessly enjoy for their own sake. For my black brothers and sisters, nothing is quite so banal as that.
For a black parent, there are always two talks that they must have with their children as they grow up. The first talk is, you know…that talk…the one every parents dreads to have. But if you’re black, there’s always the other talk. The talk about being careful as a black person living in America.
Be careful when you’re driving. Don’t speed too much or call attention to yourself. Be careful when you’re shopping. Because you’ll be watched. Be especially careful in your interactions with police. Because while it’s certainly not what it used to be (and thank God for that), things can get explosively ugly in a big hurry, without you hardly doing anything.
I never had to have that talk with my daughter growing up. It never entered my mind.
And that’s one thing that my black friends want me to know. And it’s something that they appreciate when I lock eyes with them and listen to their story.
When a white cop pinned George Floyd with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes till every ounce of air drained out of his lungs, and the nation convulsed into protests and riots as a result, my first response as a white Christian and a pastor must not be to shout out, “Law and order!”, or “Antifa!”, or point to statistics of cop on black violence or black on black violence, or scoff at concepts like ‘systemic racism’ (all things which I should study deeply).
My first response has to be, must be, needs to be…to kneel down beside my brothers and sisters, and listen.
Why? Because I didn’t have to have the talk with my daughter.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.