Between the Lines: The Talk

The recent wave of protests from professional athletes during the playing of the national anthem reminds me of the first time I ever had a one-on-one interaction with a police officer in a dark hallway of an empty high school where I was technically trespassing.
The summer before I started at UTD, my friend and I, who are both Latino, worked moving books at our high school for my dad. He was an assistant principal there at the time. The job broke our backs and paid us next to nothing, but we got a little bit of cash in our pockets, which as 18-year-olds made us feel like kings.
One day, my dad sent us to move the books on a weekend, when the building would be empty. He said he would call security and let them know we would be there and everything would be fine. For about an hour, we worked in the bookroom, which is on the second floor of the school, played obnoxious music at obscene volumes and took every chance we could get to comment on how evil the textbook industrial complex is.
When I heard a bang from downstairs, I turned down the music and looked nervously down the long corridor to the stairwell at the end of the passageway. When two towering, intimidating, white cops walked out, I knew something very bad was about to happen.
My dad is good for everything he says he’s going to do. His word is his bond, so when he said he’d call security to let them know we’d be there, I didn’t think twice and headed to the school. Problem is, my dad is busy and old. So on that particular day, caught up in work around the house, he forgot to call security. So when the doors opened to the school unannounced and set off the campus alarms, the district dispatched officers to the building.
When the officers approached me and my friend, I tried to explain the situation, but they kept cutting me off. All they wanted to know is what we were doing there, alone, in an empty building filled with valuable equipment and supplies. There wasn’t any room for discussion, it was an interrogation.
One of them turned to the other and asked if they should arrest us, but by the grace of God, they didn’t. They made us put up the books and get out. We quickly packed up, thanked the officers and darted off. As we left, one of them told us we were lucky. They could have sent the dogs on us.
When I got home, my dad looked at me with a surprised look, wondering why I had gotten back so early. All I told him was he forgot to call security. He shut his eyes and cupped his head in his hands and gasped as he realized exactly what that meant.
I headed to my room to lay down and process everything that had happened. My dad walked in and apologized, but I didn’t really want to talk. He sighed and gave me the long, hopeless look he gives me whenever he can tell I’ve been hurt and he knows there’s nothing he can do. He knew the situation had little to no silver linings, but he still saw a lesson we could both take away.
“Now you know what so many of our people go through on a daily basis,” he said.
When my dad said this, he spoke from his own experience. Born in Mexico, my dad came to America as a 3-year-old and remembers what it’s like to go into a classroom without knowing a lick of English. He knows what it’s like to grow up around kids who looked like him and could never make it out of their hometowns. He still talks about the Latino kids he taught at an alternative school early in his career who are in prison or dead.
That day, my friend and I got our first real taste of what it means to feel afraid because of what we look like. Sure, there had been times where people may have called us “the help” at a wedding or given us strange looks at mostly white parties, but those are easy to brush off.
Here, the stakes had never been higher. See, my friend came into the United States as an undocumented immigrant. He had done everything right his whole life, had no criminal record, had always been an honors student, but at that moment, none of that mattered. If he had been arrested, chances are he would no longer be living in the United States.
The only thing that mattered was fear. The police officers looked at us and saw two brown kids and were probably scared. We looked at the police officers and saw two white cops. We were definitely scared.
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started to sat down during the national anthem to protest police violence against minorities, my dad and I had another conversation. We disagreed on whether Kaepernick did the right thing (I think he did something good, even if I disagree with the methods. My dad doesn’t really agree with him at all). We sat and talked about the plight young Latinos face every day and what it’s like to be caught somewhere between black and white.
When someone says “Black Lives Matter,” I may not be able to feel their same pain, but I can relate. I know what it’s like to be talked down to because of my race, to be told I’m not good enough simply because of the way I look.
As I expressed my latest frustrations to my father, he gave me the same long, hopeless look I’ve gotten used to seeing now. I’ve never asked him, but I wonder if he’s ever scared when I walk out of the house. I wonder if he ever worries if I come home late and am pulled over by the wrong police officer. I wonder if he ever sees all the dead people of color on the news and sees me instead.
I’m nowhere near the stage in life where I’m thinking of starting a family, but I’m already scared for my future children. I know I’ll have to sit them down and tell them that there will be people in this world who will treat them unfairly because of who they are. One day, if things don’t change for the better, I’ll have to give them long, hopeless looks too.

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