Of all the things I could say about the horrifying footage of George Floyd’s death, I think it’s most helpful to share how racism has impacted my life. Before I jump in, I realize many people will come across this post and not know who I am. I’m a software engineer living in the Salt Lake City metro area, I am married and have two children, and I am Black. Typically, my blog posts are about programming languages and other minutiae; racism and police brutality are not topics I’ve written about here. For anyone who reads this, I hope you walk away knowing that ongoing acts of racism against me personally and police brutality incidents in the news inform my choices and habits. I don’t have anything to share that is as violent and disgusting as the brutality and racism we hear and read about every day. What I have to share are small injustices that have shaped who I am today.
Being outside near my house
When I was in college, I went for a run one summer morning just before dawn. I wore a long-sleeve black T-shirt, navy-blue running shorts, and black running shoes. About a mile into my run, two cop cars pulled alongside and asked me—over a megaphone—to stop running. I had my headphones in, and the piercing crackling sound and blinding lights stopped me in my tracks. The four officers hopped out of their cars and began to grill me with questions while walking toward me.
I explained I was a student, and I was just on a morning run. They mentioned getting a call about a “suspicious person” running through the neighborhood; I asked them what made me seem suspicious, and one officer said, “There are not too many Black folks in Provo.” They asked me for an ID, but I didn’t bring any with me for a short run. Another officer asked me what my major was and what classes I was taking to prove, I was a student. I nervously rattled off all the information, and they were satisfied. They told me to run when it wasn’t so dark out or to stay on the main streets to avoid scaring people in the neighborhood.
The thought that my presence would make other people uncomfortable has weighed heavily on me…and I have a paralyzing level of awareness of my environment.
The thought that my presence would make other people uncomfortable has weighed heavily on me since then, and I have a paralyzing level of awareness of my environment. I can tell when there are eyes on me, and I do things to make people feel at ease. Sometimes it’s a wave and a smile to let them know I’m nonthreatening. Other times it’s taking a different path to avoid startling anyone. I also keep a mental checklist when I go for a run, a bike ride, or a walk in my neighborhood:
- Wear bright colors (I’m always on the lookout for bright yellow and orange sneakers)
- Always bring identification
- Avoid hoodies at all costs. If I have to wear one, I have a few bright colors to choose from
- Avoid residential neighborhoods (staying on the main streets is less threatening)
At a minimum, these steps reduce the chances I’ll have to talk to police officers. In the extreme, they have saved my life.
My appearance in public
If you see me in public with sweatsuits or jogging pants, you probably caught me on my way to the mailbox. My paralyzing level of self-awareness prevents me from doing so for any larger outings. During my freshman year of college in Connecticut (sophomore through senior years were in Provo, Utah), I applied for a job on campus at the library. I got invited in for an interview, and the instructions were explicit that the dress for the meeting was casual. I got through the interview and got the job. When I showed up to work the first day, my boss told me to “not come dressed like a thug,” because “the patrons would be offended.” I thought back to what I wore that day to the interview: some jeans, an LRG T-shirt, and a fitted hat. What about that said “thug”? I needed the money, but I felt so uncomfortable and unsure that I could work there that I ended up quitting at the end of the first day.
I notice the “you don’t belong here” looks when I dress a certain way. I see the sigh of relief when I wear Lacoste.
Later in college, I earned a research grant and needed to collect my check from the university administration office. I only had a little time to visit the office before my other responsibilities, so I put on a fitted hat, a T-shirt, and some sweatpants and headed over. Dressing so casually on campus was atypical for me, especially over a year after the running incident. When I got to the administration office, a student employee asked me what I needed. I told her I won a grant, and I was there to collect the check. She looked at me with abject skepticism and asked me to provide some ID, and I did. She said she needed to check with her supervisor, and after some time of them peering back into my vicinity, they brought my check and said sorry for the mix-up.
This experience sent my heightened awareness into overdrive. I notice the “you don’t belong here” looks when I dress a certain way. I see the sigh of relief when I wear Lacoste.
When I was in high school, I was offered a ride home from a White classmate on my way out of school. His car smelled like weed, but I didn’t think smelling like weed was a crime, so I got in. He was speeding (going about 50 mph in a 35 mph zone), and he was pulled over by an officer. The officer immediately smelled the stench of weed and began to question my classmate.
When the officer realized that I was the passenger, his attention switched immediately to me, and he fired off some questions.
“Do you sell weed around here?” “Are you a part of this gang?” “Haven’t I talked to you before?” “Where do you live?”
After questioning me, he asked me to get out of the car. My heart sank. As I started opening the door, my classmate told me to close it, that I didn’t have to deal with this officer. The officer looked suspiciously at him and asked him why he was “defending thugs.” The officer got bored and eventually let us go.
I wasn’t speeding, I was deferential to the police officer, and somehow his suspicion was squarely on me. What if I were driving and my car smelled like weed? How differently would this have turned out?
Today, I exercise caution when I drive:
- Always drive the posted speed limit
- Never drive tired
- Never drive a car without up-to-date registration
- Never drive a vehicle without functioning lights (every light)
Following these heuristics is about being more than a “good driver.” It’s about lowering the probability of encountering the police. It’s a deep-rooted fear that I don’t have to be in the wrong to have things go wrong. Why risk it?
Following these heuristics is about being more than a “good driver.” It’s about lowering the probability of encountering the police. It’s a deep-rooted fear that I don’t have to be in the wrong to have things go wrong.
You may read each of these isolated encounters and think, “This isn’t so bad,” but a lifetime of small injustices is a massive boulder to carry. I shared a tiny sampling of racism I’ve faced in life, and all the wholesome experiences I’ve had don’t change that truth. Having a successful career hasn’t changed it, having two college degrees hasn’t changed it, and embedding in my majority-White community hasn’t changed it. I still have a mortal fear of being pulled over. I don’t wear a hat for an evening stroll through my neighborhood. I make sure you know we have more in common than you think. That’s how racism has shaped my life, and I know that’s true for many others.