Last Sunday night, I was running down a street near Harvard Yard, trying to get to Harvard Square Station in time to catch a bus. I was wearing, backwards, my Houston Texans hat, a “Cosby Show” T-shirt, and khaki shorts. I had my Mizzou “Summer Welcome 2010” bag over my shoulder. I wasn’t sprinting, but I was moving pretty quickly (for me, anyway). I passed a group of four strangers who looked somewhere between 17 and 21.
As I ran by, one of the guys, a white guy, yelled out, “Bro, you running from the cops or something?” One woman added, “What’d you steal this time?”
Surely, I’d heard wrong. I stopped and turned around. “Are you kidding me?” I asked. The group seemed tipsy and unapologetic. “We’re just messing around,” one said. “We saw a black guy running at night, so why wouldn’t we say that?” asked another, indifferently.
The exchange quickly grew heated, with me trying to explain to them why their comments were inappropriate. They weren’t having any of it. They refused to understand why their words were offensive. They told me I needed to lighten up, and “learn to take a joke.” Rather than fight, I walked on to the station.
The whole encounter took 60 seconds.
To me, the analysis of what happened is simple. Four people, none of whom were black, saw a young black guy running down the street late at night. For whatever reason, they decided to say some dumb things.
But discussing anything about race in the 21st century is rarely straightforward. The people didn’t call me the N-word, or any other slur. They probably all have at least a handful of black friends. They didn’t try to beat me up. There are other possible explanations: Maybe it was my age, or that my hat was on backwards. Maybe it was how fast I was running. Maybe the same thing would happen to one of my white peers.
But probably not.
It wasn’t easy to write about the incident. For one, should I really complain? Most other black and brown folks have it worse than I do. I am a 24-year-old black male at Harvard Divinity School, an elite institution. My parents earned law degrees at Texas. I got most of what I wanted growing up. I have as much food as I want. This is — for some — the best time in US history to have dark skin.
To the group who yelled those things at me, it didn’t matter that I’m the incoming student body president at Harvard Divinity School. It didn’t matter that I’m the ministerial intern at First Parish Cambridge (Unitarian Universalist). All that mattered was my skin color, that it was night, and that I was running. Too often for black and brown men and women who are targeted throughout our country, that’s all that matters. It could have been worse.
My faith teaches me that every person has inherent worth and dignity. Every person matters. I don’t hate those strangers who loudly suggested that I must be a criminal, “joking” or not. I don’t suddenly hate white people because of the actions of a few.
What I want is for us to stop pretending. I want us to stop pretending that racism is over. If it were, tipsy strangers wouldn’t have heckled me. I want us to stop pretending that it’s not harder to be female than male, that it’s not harder to be gay than straight. I want us to stop pretending that we live in an equal society. We don’t. It isn’t one person or one group’s fault. Instead of blaming or evading, we can encourage and confront, together. Instead of pretending that all these “isms” are over, we can say “Things are better than they’ve ever been, and there’s so much more to be done.”
A few days removed from our nation’s birthday, strangers tried to send a message that this nation is more theirs than mine. I know better. If we’re the land of the free, we should all be free to chase down a bus in Harvard Square without being called a criminal. We have more work to do.
Kenny Wiley is a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School.