“Mommy, there’s a thug in the pool!” I remember these words quite clearly. I remember whipping my head around in confusion and fear, looking for this “thug” so that I could head in the opposite direction. I knew what a thug was, or so I thought; in my head, as a 7-year-old, a shadowed, ominous, burly man was what a thug looked like. This visualization, this picture that I had in my head of what a thug looked like was imagined with a limited amount of personal experience. After all, what kind of real-life experiences could a young child living in a well-off, suburban neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have had to visualize what a thug looked like?

“Mommy, there’s a thug in the pool!” The thug was a child who had been branded by his peer as such. That child was me, and this short, meaningful exchange is similarly branded in my memory after 17 years. This was the first time I can vividly remember recognizing that there was something different about me, and this experience preceded many, many similar encounters I would face in the future.

“Hey, Raymond! Do you want to hear a joke?” This was a question that was posed to me by someone who I then considered a friend. At this time, I was a 15-year-old, nervous, socially unaware young boy who desperately yearned for peer approval. I craved friendship and acceptance. Of course, I jovially idled over to my then-friend, and I eagerly requested and waited for the unsolicited social interaction.

He said, “What’s the difference between a dead dog that was hit by a car and a dead Black man that was hit by a car?” I grimaced and seriously thought of a potential answer to this query that would elicit a laugh from anyone. When I gave up and asked for the punchline, I was told, “There’s skid marks in front of the dog!”

I didn’t think it was funny, but my peers who heard the joke did. They laughed, and with a grimace and a desire to be accepted, so did I. I remember that one of the most disturbing parts of this exchange was that my peer did not use the phrase dead “Black man.” He used another word.

For better or worse, these two stories are two examples of personally impactful experiences that are seared into my memory, much like a brand that my father’s great-grandfather might have received to denote him as a piece of human property. I live in Portland now, and for many reasons I am happy and feel blessed to be here. I haven’t been referred to as a “thug” by a small child. I haven’t had to endure a myriad of jokes littered with racial epithets shared with me by my peers. For the most part, I feel safe and comfortable in this small, small city.

Be you Mainer or Louisianan, American citizen or otherwise, no matter how we dichotomize ourselves we share a universal experience – existence as metaphorical gears and cogs in the colossal machine we call the United States of America. Just as individual mechanical parts serve different purposes, different, individual people have experienced differently difficult trials and tribulations. One person’s experience does not invalidate another’s; bad things happen to everyone. However, some bad things almost exclusively happen to specific, small groups of people. Those people’s lives and experiences matter. Mine do as well, wouldn’t you say?

My experiences as a Black man in America are individual, but to many of my Black brothers and sisters they are painfully ubiquitous. Neither you nor I can erase the experiential racism that I, many of my Black contemporaries and my Black elders have had to endure. But reprimanding a child’s seemingly harmless statement that refers to a stranger as a “thug” when there are none in sight is a good start; perhaps reprimanding a peer for a racist joke in poor taste is a step in the right direction. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and we have a long way to go.

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