Racism is like a sandspur

You may not know you have picked it up until you get home and examine yourself closely. Time to pick off the burs.

With folded hands, I confess my sins.

Six years ago, we moved from Apopka to Winter Springs. In doing so, we went from living in a city where white (non-Hispanic) people are the minority to a predominantly white suburb where only 5% are black — about a third of the Florida average. We did so to be closer to my office, in-laws, and church. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a bit of classism in that decision as well: better schools, less crime, and nicer homes.

That’s not the sin I’m here to confess though. I’m getting there.

Shortly after moving to Winter Springs, I ran out of coffee creamer one night. Those that know me well grasp that this qualifies as an emergency! So I made a 10 PM trip to the 7–11 just down the road. It was a dark winter night. The parking lot was mostly deserted, except for one other car and a few people jostling around the store.

Upon entering, I noticed a black teenager with a red hoodie pulled up over his head. Passing by the newspaper rack, I noticed that he was in the middle of an animated conversation with the cashier. Both hands were in the pockets of his hoodie, and he was gesturing emphatically with them.

Oh crap. I thought. I’ve just walked into a robbery!

In that split second, I was flushed with fear. Instinctively, I ducked down the first aisle and tried to blend into the wall of jerky and Doritos, hoping that I could avoid being noticed as a witness.

It wasn’t a robbery.

Two seconds later, I noticed the clerk was laughing in reply to whatever the young man was saying. It became obvious they knew each other. The boy (who a moment ago I assumed was a dangerous criminal) removed his wallet, paid for whatever late-night snack he was buying, and went on his way.

He was no different from me. Just a customer grabbing a snack. And yet — even if just for a few seconds — I had assumed the worst about him. Not ten miles from where a bigot stole Trayvon Martin’s life, I had similarly judged this teen on his appearance alone.

Am I a racist? I don’t think so. Was my instinctual reaction racist? Absolutely.

Here I am, a supposed social justice advocate — an “ally” — doing the thing that I hate. To be honest, I still haven’t fully forgiven myself, but I admonished myself right there in that 7–11 to learn from it.

No one should expect perfection. Not of ourselves and not of others. What we should demand, however, is continual growth.

It’s impossible to walk through a Florida thicket without picking up your share of sand spurs. Similarly, we can not live in this stained world without getting blemished ourselves. Each one of us is a product of our societal experience. Each of us carries unique baggage. A level of ingrained bias is unavoidable.

What then? Do we just accept prejudice as part of human nature?

No! Of course not! What has been learned can also be unlearned. We must demand better — starting with ourselves. However, that process can not begin until we remove the illusion of our own righteousness. Look into your true reflection. You must earnestly own your sin before you can repent of it.

James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

How powerful! And yet we routinely try to convey ourselves as colorblind, hate-free, bias-free, perfect human beings. Lower that mask. Let’s be real.

The term “racist” is thrown around as a binary boogeyman: either you are or you aren’t. Truth is, like most things, it exists on a spectrum. And we’re all somewhere on it. Just because you aren’t out burning crosses, committing hate crimes, or saying the “n-word” doesn’t mean you ain’t got work to do!

One of my readers recently asked me: “For those of us who care, what should we do? How can we help?”

Plenty! But the modest first step is to focus on yourself. Get well-educated on history. Listen with an open heart to the experiences of people of color. They have been asking to be heard for far too long. Identify the dark stains within yourself that only you know about: confess, repent, reform.

Next work on your family. Then others in your circle of influence. It seems like a daunting task, especially for those who are not receptive to hearing another perspective. But if not you then who?

Black America can’t do it for you. The (real) media has lost its influence. Riots are counterproductive. It’s on you. You want the world to heal? Be the change. You must be bold yet gentle. Impatient yet persistent.

First though, it starts with repentance. Seek out and pick off those painful stickers that you’ve picked up along life’s way. Only then can you help others see they’re covered in ‘em!

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CTO @ Echelon Fitness. Founder of MileSplit. Entrepreneur, technology executive, historian, writer, Christian, family man, and track & field fan.

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Jason Byrne

Jason Byrne

CTO @ Echelon Fitness. Founder of MileSplit. Entrepreneur, technology executive, historian, writer, Christian, family man, and track & field fan.

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