With all that has been occurring in my city lately, especially in the wake of hurricane Harvey, on any given day I may feel more like the small, quick but fragile lizard or the big, solid, heavy rock. I’m not sure if one is in any way preferable to the other. Ideally, in a kind and cooperative world, the rock could provide protection for the lizard, and the lizard could return the favor by offering companionship to the land-locked rock.

A reader submitted a question after reading a recent post here called “We Are Hard-Wired for Kindness….Or Are We?

Her question:

What was the point of saying that the men in the gangs were black?

At first I didn’t want to respond at all. I felt it might take this blog as a whole off-topic, or perhaps I just thought it would take me off-topic.

By the way, the reader who asked this question is white, female, holds a PhD from a very respected institution and appears to be in her middle years of life. If any of that matters….and I really have no idea if it does or not.

In the blog, I mentioned that in my neighborhood, gangs of young black men have been attacking bicyclists, toppling them off their bikes, beating them up and then stealing the cycles.

Mentioning that they were black was an off-hand descriptive comment and truthfully, when I wrote that post, I didn’t even give a second thought to my choice to point out that they were black as it felt quite secondary to the topic of the post overall. Rather, looking back now, I can see that I was simply repeating verbatim the description of the crimes, the criminals and the victims that I had read about on our community website that morning.

But then I got the reader’s question. And I got really bothered, and angry, and frustrated, and all this stuff just exploded up inside me.

At first, I didn’t think I could respond at all, because I would end up writing a book instead of a blog post. Then I started to worry I would come across as very defensive, which made sense since that was exactly how I was feeling at the time. Like, “I must be a bad person. I must be a racist. I must be guilty of racism or she wouldn’t have asked me why I mentioned the young men in the gang were black.”

But I took some time to breathe and calm down, and here is the short 1-2-3 version of why – I think – I mentioned in my blog post that the young men were black.

  1. They were black. It is just a fact. I suppose I could have also mentioned I am white and that the gang’s victims were white, but my photo is on my blogger profile here, so anyone curious enough to know my race can easily look and see that, and I realize now I just assumed readers would know that the victims were white as well. That assumption probably didn’t serve me or that particular post very well.
  2. My neighborhood is predominantly white, although there is more ethnic diversity moving in. So black gangs deliberately showing up and working the bike trail in a mostly white community stood out to me.
  3. Since that day, I have subsequently read about gangs of young black men beating up and robbing pedestrians for their wallets – here again, the specific incident mentioned was a group of three black guys attacking a group of four white guys who were strolling after eating dinner at a local restaurant.

Now, a bit about my own background that I also didn’t include in that blog post.

Prior to moving into this current rather ethnically monotone community, I have typically lived in quite ethnically diverse areas in this city. 

The last area I lived in was mostly latino, and I moved out because I was threatened by two of my neighbors, one white and one latino. My Pakistani landlords were wonderful, by the way.

I grew up attending a mostly white elementary school, but my best friend was Asian. When I moved to middle school, it was quite ethnically diverse, but I didn’t really have many friends because I developed an eating disorder. In high school I went to a performing arts high school and I had one white best friend and one black best friend there.

In college, my close friends were white, middle eastern, black, Asian and probably some other ethnicities I don’t remember now. In my first job out of college, my closest friend from training was black and my other two closest friends at my work office were white.

After I left that job, I moved to India to offer humanitarian service along with an international assortment of the most eclectic kind. My best friend there was white.

When I came home, I promptly lost my way for a decade or so, and spent half that time waitressing, where I had my first heartbreaking experiences of reverse racism. This was during George W. Bush’s presidency. The restaurant I spent most of those years working at had a large black clientele, and the food and drinks were quite cheap. We earned about $2 an hour plus tips.

Night after night, black couples and groups would come for happy hour. More often than not, they would make some complaint about my service and then leave me dimes or even just pennies as a tip. Worthy of note, the black head waitress would never wait on these tables. She would make us take them.

Then President Obama was elected. And I’m not kidding – I could feel the shift in the tension literally the day after it happened. Black people smiled at me on the street. My black customers eased up on me. I was so relieved. In those early days, I just wanted to hug and kiss him and thank him for helping us all get along a little better.

What is my point in retelling all this?

My point (or I think it is, anyway) is that I am comfortable being a part of the lives of other ethnicities and cultures.

I like having those experiences, and while I’ve never been the most confident friend-maker and certainly tend to be rather shy and introverted as a whole, I’ve been fortunate to have a chance to be close with friends of many different backgrounds with all kinds of different languages and religions and skin colors. There have been a number of times in my life, for example, when I’ve been the only white attendee at an all-black wedding or business meeting. It was a little odd at times, but people were friendly and we all got used to it.

So here, I think I mentioned the black ethnicity of the gangs of young men working hard to harass, harm and intimidate the mostly white and mostly male victims in our neighborhood because it felt relevant to me. It feels, frankly, like reverse racism. Or prejudice. Or racial profiling. Or just pure hate.

Maybe black people rob and beat up and threaten black people too – they probably do. And with the crime rates soaring the way they seem to be right now (especially since we endured hurricane Harvey here in Houston just a month or so ago) our neighborhood has produced plenty of white-on-white and latino-on-white criminals of late as well.

But here where I live right now, most of the people are white. So either the non-white criminals live here too, and they are just conveniently popping over to do their punching and thieving when they happen to catch sight of a likely target out their living room windows, or they are deliberately coming into our neighborhood with the express purpose of harming and stealing from the white people who live here.

Or maybe there is some other explanation for it all I haven’t even thought of yet.

But if that is it – if non-white people are traveling to my mostly-white neighborhood deliberately to do awful criminal things, why would anyone do that? I guess maybe since many of the homes here cost a lot, and the cars are sometimes fancy, aspiring thieves think this is a good place to get stuff they didn’t work for themselves.

By the way, the home I live in doesn’t cost a lot. I rent a one-bedroom garage apartment and drive a nearly 12-year-old car with plenty of dents in the back bumper. I live mostly paycheck to paycheck, and I know there are lots of white people living here right alongside me in apartments and cottage homes and guest studios that are in the same situation.

So it is not all riches and gold here, just because there are a lot of white faces. But I guess any criminal, black, white or otherwise, will get better at picking only the well-to-do white victims with enough practice.

And meanwhile, it makes me mad. And scared. These young black gangs are stronger than I am. If they wanted whatever I have, even if it wasn’t much (and currently it isn’t), there isn’t anything I could do on my own to stop them from taking it.

I think it is very easy to forget that just because a person has “stuff” – material things like money or cars or a nice house – it doesn’t mean they haven’t gone through a whole lot in their life. You never know the story of someone’s situation just by racially profiling them.

Just looking at my comfortably retired tall, thin, distinguished looking and well-spoken white Dad, for instance, you wouldn’t ever know he lived for the first four years of his life in an orphanage along with his three siblings because their Mom worked three jobs to try to provide for them and just wasn’t making ends meet.

You wouldn’t know how he joined the Army ahead of the draft and served well, hoping they would pay for his college tuition after he left, only to find out later they were only funding Vietnam veterans’ tuition at that time. He still went, worked three jobs while carrying a full class load to put himself through school.

You wouldn’t know looking at me, a white 40-something gal, that I struggled for 20 years with an eating disorder and had no medical care because there really was no such thing back when I got sick. So I was basically just a mess for most of my life to date.

You also wouldn’t know how many times I’ve been deep in debt and that just this year I dug myself out of debt yet again and am now debt-free for the first time in over a decade and I’m determined to stay that way.

I just feel like sometimes it is worth mentioning a person’s race or ethnicity, even if I don’t realize I’m making a specific point when I personally do this. I only realized after the reader asked her question that I was also commenting on the fact that I felt like people in my community were experiencing reverse racism and were perhaps even being racially profiled by the black gangs.

This – hatred – is something I haven’t felt since before President Obama’s two terms in office. It makes me really sad and sometimes I feel hopeless too. I wonder what caused us to get so fractured once again. I wish we could get back what we had.

And most of all, I wish I personally didn’t see color. Or age. Or gender. Or size. Or shape. Or personal grooming (or lack thereof). Or misspelled words or missing punctuation. Or any of the other oh-so-many surficial and often simply stupid so-called “differences” between us that really don’t mean any of the things I was taught to assume they meant.

But that is just where we are, and where I am today. And, dear reader, if I had it to write all over again, knowing what I realize now, I would again mention that the gangs were black, because honestly, it feels relevant in this case. What I would change is that I would just explain why I mentioned it much better, and also say that it feels like a wake-up call, that we are back-sliding, that we need to work harder to hold on to what we achieved during the Obama years in terms of just all getting along no matter what color we are.

I also confess I wonder if, in those young black men’s neighborhoods, there is a similar community news website, and if, on that website, their neighbors are posting similar news about white or latino or asian or middle eastern or black or (insert ethnicity here) gangs “working their neighborhood” and targeting specific ethnicities who live there as victims for beatings and robbings. And if so, I wonder if they feel like I do right now – racially profiled, hated, resented, targeted, hopeless, afraid.

P.S. Dear reader, I would also love to know why you asked me that particular question, if you would be willing to share.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever found yourself casually mentioning race or gender or age or some other identifying factors while you told a story? Did you wonder why later, and if the meaning of the story might have somehow changed if you left those details out? Have you ever feared you are racist or prejudiced? I fear this for myself – and when there are strong young black men attacking weaker older white people in my community, I feel like perhaps I might be leaning in that direction, because I am angry and afraid. I would love to hear your thoughts, and please do keep the conversation as kind as possible!! No one is under attack here, or at least I have attempted to write this in such a way to simply share my personal opinion and not conduct any kind of attack. Your understanding and compassion and your wisdom and honest input is greatly appreciated!