My kindergarten school photograph from Butternut Elementary in North Olmstead, Ohio, was the only one from my childhood in which I was not wearing my glasses. I sported a white turtleneck sweater and sat at my desk with my hands folded before me, my straight dark hair cut evenly in bangs, my dark brown eyes wide and hopeful and complemented with an innocent smile. With my vision already a minus-ten in my right eye and a minus-eleven in my left, I probably just imagined I was looking at the camera.
The photo was taken in the fall of 1973, when I was oblivious to national and world events such as the oil crisis, the Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam War. I was clueless, and would remain clueless for many years, regarding injustices embedded within American culture and milestone events and people who were cultural trailblazers. The U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled on Roe v. Wade, and Billie Jean King had recently won the “battle of the sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs. A group of Native Americans was engaged in a stand-off with federal authorities at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. In New York, Shirley Chisholm was in her third term following her 1968 election as the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.
A year later I wore my black frames with thick lenses for my first-grade picture, setting the tone for several hideous portraits-of-the-artist-as-a-young-geek that would follow. To make the matter even more egregious, the photo was taken a day or two after I had a boil removed from my nose; the circular band-aid was an amusing companion to my glasses, my goofy, clueless grin, and my long hair that shot out on each side of my head like dark-brown bird wings.
When our family moved to a new city and school during the middle of second grade, it seemed like a big deal to others that I was the only child in the class with glasses. Classmates frequently asked me why the lenses were so thick and a couple of referred to me as “four-eyes.” One day the kickball bounced off my face during P.E. and my frames snapped. The teacher had some masking tape handy and taped the frames back together for the rest of the day, which enabled me to see the chalkboard and my paper and pencil and the other children but made me even more self-conscious. There were several other instances when my glasses broke, and my mom or dad used duct tape until they could get them repaired.
My father tried to get me to think better about my appearance. “What a cute kid!” he would say, gazing at me. When my glasses broke during a scuffle with some other kids, my mother vented, “Why do they always go for the face?”
The United States celebrated its bicentennial that summer of 1976. Georgia’s Jimmy Carter became the Democratic nominee for president. Texas’s Barbara Jordan, the first Southern black woman to be elected to Congress, delivered the keynote address during the party’s national convention.
Our family moved again that summer before I started third grade, and I was grateful for a fresh start in a new, larger school, Holly Hill Elementary. There were other boys and girls with glasses, although none were as thick as mine. For that fall’s school picture, I wore a t-shirt branding that year’s biggest movie, Rocky, and had a Rocky poster on my bedroom door that year as well. I made new friends in the neighborhood, friends with whom I rode the bus and played sandlot football and baseball. I discovered that I was good at throwing and catching the ball in both sports, at least with small groups of other kids.
I continued to wear my hair longer, like my older brother Frank did. My mother worked in the fabrics department at a retail store and sometimes brought me to work when I was not in school. One day an older male co-worker approached us and remarked, “This must be your lovely daughter.” I stood there, silent and embarrassed, while my mother chuckled and informed the co-worker that I was her son. Another time, at school, the class was divided into small groups for some project and someone in my group pointed out that we were all girls. Our teacher overheard this and corrected the student, with a touch of exasperation, “John’s a boy!”
Holly Hill Elementary was more diverse than any previous school I attended. I noticed that all the black students sat together during school assemblies. I found myself nervous around my black peers, worried about saying the wrong thing to them. I feared a tall, muscular black student named Hosey, who often scowled and criticized me. Another black kid, Felton, was friendly with me but did things such as holding up a severed pubic hair. One day during lunch, I was showing off some delicious chocolate treat my mother had packed in my lunch, and Felton reached over and touched it. “Get your black hands off it!” I said, and Felton drew his hand back. I was embarrassed at my reaction and grateful that Felton did not say anything in response.
During the summer after third grade I spent a few weeks visiting my grown sister Francine in Cleveland, Ohio. One day I was walking along the sidewalk by myself, my face perspiring under my glasses, and a couple of girls my age walked past me. “Hey, kid, you’re dumb,” one of them said, and the other immediately added, “Yeah, you’re dumb.” I said nothing in response and kept walking. Ever since that moment I have felt a twinge of discomfort when passing other people on the sidewalk, in shopping malls, in airports, and so forth.
I started Holly Hill Junior High when I was twelve. Like what I had noticed at the elementary school, black students sat by themselves not only during assemblies but during lunch. I met new white kids in P.E. who made fun of my glasses, which were now tinted, and I dreaded having to change clothes in the locker room before and after a session in the gym or on the sports fields. One day in the hallway, a big black student stopped and asked me, in a loud and happy voice, “When did you start going to this school?” I stared at him, unsure what to say, and stuttered something like, “Since the school year started.” The kid kept smiling and patted me on the back. “It’s John!” he said.
I knew the student was familiar and wondered if we had played baseball or flag football together but could not think of his name. As awkward as that moment was, I felt that he had been kind to me. He had noticed me. He had remembered me. And he was black.
One afternoon I bicycled home from the park across from my school, several miles from my neighborhood. I heard another bicycle approaching me from behind and looked back at the menacing smile of a white kid my age, with light brown hair cut into bangs and a big grin. I had seen him before but did not know his name. He pedaled just behind me and I pedaled faster but could not shake him. The kid sped ahead of me and then cut off my path and stopped, forcing me to stop as well. He grabbed my handlebars and would not let go.
“Please,” I pleaded. “I’m not feeling well. Just leave me alone.” After a moment he let go of my handlebars and I started pedaling toward home again, as fast as I could, and the kid followed me once again. Finally, he sped off in another direction. I would occasionally see the boy at school, avoiding eye contact with him, hoping he would not remember me. Four decades later I can still picture his smiling face in the school yearbook, grinning with his head tilted to one side.
I played Little League baseball during junior high, and one of my most popular teammates was a black kid named Fred. On one occasion Fred and one of the white players stopped by my house. Fred asked if I was uncomfortable having black people over there. “I’m not like that!” I said, defensively, trying to laugh it off. But I was uncomfortable, even though I didn’t want to be. My heart for people different than myself was thicker than I realized, far thicker than my glasses.
My older brother Frank got contact lenses and I was desperate to be fitted with them as well. That glorious day occurred during the summer of 1981, when I was 13. I spent hours looking in the mirror, my face unmasked, my dark eyes unhindered by the thick lenses and ugly frames. I practiced my smile and noticed my dimples. I couldn’t resist glancing at a mirror if one were available, as if to reassure myself that the glasses were still gone and that I was attractive. “Yeah, John, you’re still here,” Frank said to me one night when I popped into the bathroom for a quick glance at the mirror while he was brushing his teeth.
That summer, just before I got my contact lenses, I met a girl named Jovan who was visiting from Ohio with her family. We hung out at the beach and my house. She was the first girl I felt comfortable around, and I wished I had met her after getting contacts. I feared Jovan would always view me as a dork, as girls at school seemed to do, even though she was always kind to me during our time together.
I was eager to show up on the first day of eighth grade as a new person with a new face. But a week before school started one of my contact lenses began to hurt my eye, and when I took it out I was horrified to see a small tear. I cried to my mother that I had to get a new lens, that I couldn’t start school with those same horrible glasses. We drove to the eye doctor and I was grateful to receive a spare pair of contacts. To this day I’ve never been without a backup pair or two.
I loved it when new kids came to the junior high who had not met me when I wore glasses, and I hoped they wouldn’t get a copy of the seventh-grade yearbook. I met a girl named Carla in science class and picked up an unfamiliar vibe, sensing that she liked me, noticing that she whispered to me during class and laughed with me. It was energizing, but I didn’t know how to talk to girls and I started acting obnoxious and she was soon turned off and stopped being friendly.
Across high school I had a succession of short-term relationships with female classmates, usually “getting too serious too quickly” for the girl’s liking, leading to her breaking up with me. I spent a lot more energy on my social life than my grades, and neither was anything but average.
I made friends with a black girl named Wanda, who was in my 12th grade creative writing class. We had a natural rapport and joked around a lot, and Wanda would kid around with other classmates by telling them in front of me, “John and I are going to prom.” It was unheard of then for students of different races to date each other. I never knew whether Wanda did like me as more than a friend and didn’t spend time thinking about it because I had no concept of dating someone from another race.
There was another black girl named Cosette in my yearbook class; she was very street smart and sarcastic, and I didn’t feel as comfortable around her as I did with Wanda. I don’t remember the context of the conversation, but one afternoon during class I pointed out that I was not prejudiced against black people.
“Really?” Cosette responded, rolling her eyes. “You don’t see how much you’re prejudiced.” I was stunned, unable to think of anything I had ever said or done in her presence that was even slightly racist but didn’t press Cosette for specifics.
I got along well with another black student in yearbook class named Derrick and could have seen myself hanging out with Derrick outside of school; but Derrick was popular and polished and a top student, and I didn’t think he would be interested in deepening our friendship. Maybe it was a lack of effort on my part, an unwillingness to take risks and get uncomfortable, that Cosette had observed.
When I graduated from high school a friend named David wrote in my yearbook, “At least you don’t wear coke bottles anymore.” I shook my head; at that point I’d had contacts lenses for nearly five years. Was there nothing else interesting about me? I wondered if the other kids who knew me in elementary school or that first year of junior high automatically viewed the awful glasses whenever they looked at me in the present. At the time, it still didn’t occur to me that millions of Americans were “automatically viewed” in a derogatory manner because of their appearance.
There were a handful of black students in my college courses and my campus dorms, and I didn’t get to know any of them beyond a surficial level. This continued during my first two professional workplaces. Then, when I was 28, I took a job at a publishing company that was very intentional about staffing diversity, and I became good friend with a black colleague named Ed. We socialized outside of work. A few years later, while in theological seminary and spending a summer as a chaplain, my closest friend was the lone black student chaplain, Anthony. A few years after that, during a two-year stint with a financial services firm, my favorite colleague to hang out with outside of work was a young black man named Richard.
Then, 20 years after finishing high school, I began working at a large wireless company where most of the population were people of color, fully forcing me out of my comfort zone. Across the past decade I began to see up close, through both my vision-correcting contact lenses and my heart, how much people of color, especially black men and women, suffer at the overt actions or subtle indifferences of white, privileged, straight men and women. And that I had been part of this problem for a long time, and that there was nothing heroic about finally having this epiphany.
Technology, especially cell phone cameras and police dashboard cams, began to expose how unjust our culture remained for people of color. Eric Garner, 43, died on July 17, 2014, after a police officer in Staten Island, N.Y., placed him in an illegal chokehold during an encounter on the sidewalk, where police said Garner was selling illegal cigarettes. A bystander shot video depicting Garner’s final moments, and it quickly fueled major protests and demands that the officers involved face criminal charges. The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide because of the compression of his neck and chest.
Two officers faced an internal investigation in connection with Garner’s death. The one who applied the chokehold was put on modified duty, meaning he was stripped of his gun and badge, while a police sergeant was stripped of his gun and badge and charged internally with failure to supervise. Neither were charged with a crime, and police said Garner’s poor health and refusal to cooperate with officers contributed to his death. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton ordered a review of police training techniques in the wake of Garner’s death.
Less than a month after Garner died, the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, resulted in nationwide protests against what civil rights advocates said was law enforcement’s tendency to be overly aggressive with black men. The “Black Lives Matter” hashtag quickly evolved into a movement.
Tamir Rice, 12, was shot and killed in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 22, 2014. Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback responded to a call about a black male sitting on a swing and pointing a gun at people in a city park. The caller expressed doubts about the gun’s authenticity and said the male was probably a juvenile, but that information wasn’t relayed to the responding officers. Within two seconds of arriving at the scene, Loehmann fired two shots, one hitting Rice in the torso. Rice’s weapon later was found to be a black toy gun. In December 2015, a grand jury declined to indict Loehmann or Garmback.
In April 2015, six Baltimore police officers faced charges ranging from misconduct to second-degree murder in the death of Freddie Gray, 25. Gray died when his neck was broken in the back of a police transport van. He had been restrained with handcuffs and leg irons, but not a seat belt. Gray’s death set off several days of rioting in Baltimore. The involuntary manslaughter trial of the first officer charged, William Porter, ended in December 2015 with a hung jury. A judge acquitted two other officers. The city of Baltimore paid Gray’s family $6.4 million as a settlement for civil claims.
On July 6, 2016, just months before the U.S presidential election, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed during a confrontation with two police officers outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store, where he was selling music and movies on discs. Cellphone video of the shooting was posted online and incited more angry protests. The next day, in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, an officer fatally shot 32-year-old Philando Castile while he was in a car with a woman and a child. The aftermath of the shooting was livestreamed in a widely shared Facebook video, which showed a woman in a vehicle with a man whose shirt appeared to be soaked in blood, telling the camera, “Police just shot my boyfriend for no apparent reason.”
I parted ways with old friends over Facebook disagreements concerning these events, enraged when they referred to black shooting victims as “thugs” and made comments such as “All Lives Matter,” completely missing the point that white privilege was so embedded in American culture that black people were both consciously and subconsciously viewed as less than human. My heart had softened but so many others’ hearts remained thick and calloused.
As I learned more about how mass incarceration, prison sentencing guidelines, and court fees had a disproportionate impact on people of color, I realized how much I continued to be unaware of the extent to which I was so privileged and how the challenges I had faced growing up, such as wearing thick glasses, getting bullied on occasion, and having a hard time getting girlfriends, were miniscule and trivial compared to the everyday struggles of black people who had the odds stacked against them from the start simply because they existed.
And I noticed and still notice, usually with exasperation and annoyance, how much people of white privilege, especially white men, whine about “how tough things are” for them.
In October 2017 I wrote a blog called “Letter from a Tennessee Suburb” in which I discussed my awareness of white privilege:
I am the prototypical white, privileged, straight male. I was raised in a middle-class home, and though my parents were far from wealthy I was sent to college and they paid for all of it. I moved into the professional work force, and eventually earned a master’s degree that was fully funded through grants and contributions from others. I now live in a very nice house in one of the richest counties in the U.S. and earn a nice salary.
I’ve never had to worry about standing out in the crowd, except for when I was a kid with really big, ugly glasses. I can walk down a street without arousing suspicions. I can get pulled over for a traffic violation without the fear of losing my life. People don’t stare at me when I show up in nice stores, high-end events, or sit with my loved ones or friends in restaurants.
I possess, in a nutshell, an automatic “benefit of the doubt.” And with that, as I’ve come to realize more and more, a tremendous responsibility to advocate for those who haven’t been granted such a privileged benefit.
I think that I generally sucked at such advocacy for the first 40 or so years of my life. I was one of those “good people,” as they like to call themselves, who didn’t practice any outright racism or sexism or homophobia, or any other kind of overt, negative behavior toward people who are less privileged. But I didn’t do much to help, either. I didn’t get to know many of them, at work or in the community. I lived in my bubble, focusing on my career and my family, writing articles and pieces of prose that were generally directed at people like myself.
I know people whose loved ones cannot get back into our country, even though they’ve lived here for years. I know people who’ve lost loved ones to violence. I know people who have experienced awful discrimination because of their gender identity or lifestyle. I know people who live in Puerto Rico or have family there, where a humanitarian crisis is emerging.
I don’t just read about them anymore; I know them, and I have relationships with them. And that makes all the difference, because once I moved into that realm it became impossible not to care.
In my opinion, the truly “good people” are those who pro-actively advocate for an inclusive America, one where as many people as possible are invited to participate in the numerous particulars of our cherished quality of life: Residency. Citizenship. Safety. Housing. Employment with fair, pragmatic wages. Health care. Mental health. Voting access. Opportunity unhindered by disabilities. Education. Gender equality. LGBTQ rights. Marriage equality. Reproductive rights. And so forth.
Political party or religious identification matter little to nothing to me at this point. The question for me is, “Are you helping to include or exclude?” And if you don’t care about people being excluded, you need to; because one day, it might be you on the outside looking in.
The blog resonated with dozens of my co-workers, white and black, including one black woman whose comment to me was one of the most humbling and meaningful complements I’ve ever received, one that helped me feel that I’d grown a lot and that my heart had considerably softened since that day in 12th grade when my classmate Cosette said I was blind to my own prejudice:
“I didn’t know you were ‘white.’”