I was either 8 or 9 years old. His name was Michael Whitehead. He was my first black friend, though our friendship was quickly put to an end (by my family) because of the color of his skin.
Up until that point, most of the people I knew were hispanic. I am, my descent, half Mexican and half German. My step-father, who raised me, was also of Mexican descent and we lived in San Antonio, Texas. The area in which I grew up, I would have to guess was about 85% hispanic.
From an even younger age, I remember hearing derogatory comments and slurs made towards black people. (The “N” word exists in Spanish too, you know.) I specifically remember being super young and at a grocery store, reaching for a grape out of our bag and being told not to eat it until it had been washed – BECAUSE – it could be that a black person had picked it and therefore, had touched it. And black people were “dirty”.
I didn’t understand it. And while I heard the name-calling and derogatory comments all the time, quite frankly, our family spoke this way of anyone they were upset with, didn’t agree with, or didn’t like. It wasn’t always aimed at just black people. My immediate family and extended family used words like weapons. They spoke down to each other – right to their face – so I just grew up thinking that this was normal and that’s how they acted communicated with everyone.
Until I met Michael.
And I crossed a line I was made VERY aware of.
Michael lived one street over from me. We attended the same (Christian, Baptist) school and he was on the same bus route I was on. We were children. Children who laughed and joked and shared our snacks with each other on the ride home. Even though my upbringing could have definitely influenced my view and attitude towards black people, it hadn’t and it didn’t. Michael was my friend. And one day, we thought it would be a good idea, since we lived so close together, to hang out after school and ride bikes around our neighborhood. The plan was, he would come over and get me once he was done with dinner. There wasn’t a lot of kids in our neighborhood, so I was glad to finally have someone I could hang out with.
But things took a very different turn that night.
I still remember the rage and the slamming of the front door. Even as I type this, tears stream down my face to think of it. Michael had come, as he had promised. Only to encounter my step-father, who lost his ever loving mind when a black boy showed up to ride bikes with his daughter. How dare me – how dare he – come knocking. I was NOT going to be hanging out with people “like that” and he certainly was NOT going to be hanging out with me. He didn’t even care how he spoke to Michael or how he treated him. But one thing was made very clear – he was not welcomed, and he should NEVER come back.
The front door slammed and he charged through the house rambling. I don’t even remember what he said, exactly. I was shocked by his outrage. I was stunned. I had obviously done something wrong, but I didn’t understand what or why. I was suddenly….afraid in a new way. But even more than that, my heart hurt in a new place. I still remember the feeling of it. I wanted to run out and chase Michael and tell him…I was sorry. But I couldn’t. Neither could I stop any of what had just happened. And as I watched that whole thing play out in front of me in what felt like slow motion – as I noticed that the color Michael’s skin and the color of my step-father’s skin was nearly the same – I still remember feeling something from very deep down inside of me that was SCREAMING: THIS. IS. WRONG!!!!
I don’t think I even realized it then, I was so young. But it was in THAT very moment that an important decision was formed deep within me. A bold line had been drawn in the sand. Not between me and black people, but between me and this mindset I had just unearthed. I didn’t have words for it then, I didn’t have doctrine for it, I could not have eloquently debated or defended my position. I just knew that I couldn’t be or think or act in this same way that had just caused such a deep level of pain – both to me and to Michael.
After that, things changed between me and my friend. We’d still laugh and joke together on the bus. But we never again spoke outside of school. Shortly after, he and his family moved away and I never saw him again. To this day, I hate that I never got the chance to put words to what a young heart didn’t know how to convey.
Michael, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that the door I invited you to and that I stood on the other side of slammed in your face that day. I’m sorry we never got the chance to be the great friends we could have been. I’m sorry we never got a chance to ride our bikes together. I’m sorry for the pain I’m sure that day caused you. But more importantly, what I would want you to know, old friend, is that our friendship, as short-lived as it was, forever changed who I would be for the better. And I thank you.
Your friend forever,