I was jogging while Black and almost got “Trayvonned.” #RealTalk
True story: you won’t believe what happened to my family in 2015!
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. And it was nice to be resting, watching the day pass me by from the comfort of my couch. You see: I was exhausted. I had just returned from travel, late Saturday night. When I arrived home I had to put some more work into my sermon for the morning. And then I was at the church for the first of two Masses, at 7:30 am.
Yet, the day was beautiful. And, there was an event in the neighborhood that my wife, son and I wanted to attend. There was a block party in our neighborhood. There would be food trucks and; activities for the children and neighbors. As the new couple in the neighborhood, we thought it’d be nice to go…we thought it’d be important to go.
Nice to go, because it’d be a chance for us to meet some of our neighbors. We are new to the City. And, we’re the new family in the neighborhood. As busy parents and professionals, it’s difficult to meet people. With our high-tech culture, it’s easier to stay in doors. So many of us do. But, this block party presented an opportunity where neighbors and their children might be outside. So, there would be a high possibility that we could meet new people.
Important to go because it’d be a chance for us to meet some of our neighbors. We are the new Black family in the neighborhood. We need to meet people so they know there’s a Black family in their midsts. We need to meet people to confront the assumptions that have already been made through rumor and stereotype.
Now, some might be saying at this point that I’m being overly sensitive to race and racial issues. Some might say, I anticipate a problem…I did; I do. And, this story will show you why.
Without Privilege: Fun with a Hint of Mission
My wife, 10 year old son and I left our home to walk to our neighborhood block party. We were excited to be doing something together and in our neighborhood. Yet, my wife and I knew we were also on a mission.
We were the only Black family at the event. So certainly we received the looks. Expected.
Our first stop was to the only food truck carrying seafood. We made our order and posted at a high top to wait for our meal. Then it happened: people started flocking to us. A few people began to make conversation. As with everything, some conversations were good and others were…not so good. There was one couple that really made an impression that was seemingly mutual.
Our son was roaming around, playing with some of his schoolmates. So, I took the opportunity to introduce my wife to one of the Sheriff’s Deputies who patrols the neighborhood.
White Privilege and the Fear of the Black Man: Take One
A few weeks after moving into this neighborhood, I saw a neighbor I had yet to meet checking her mail as I was entering my garage. I was dressed in my clergy collar with suspenders. I came out the garage; checked my mail; broadened my smile and extended my hand in introduction, giving her my name: “Fr. Jabriel Ballentine.” She hesitated, then extended her hand reluctantly and even more reluctantly gave me her name. She then immediately dropped my hand, went into her house and locked her door. The encounter was so strange and off-putting that I told my son not to speak with or interact with anyone associated with that house unless I tell him otherwise. I also decided that I would introduce myself to every Sheriff’s Deputy patrolling our neighborhood.
I had made a point to meet the Deputies. I now wanted to be sure they met my wife and son. When we finished the introductions, my wife and I turned to walk away. The couple with whom we had spoken earlier was there. The husband wanted to introduce me to an older gentleman (OG), who is head of the Neighborhood Association.
Here’s where things get outrageous:
The OG extends his had and we shake:
“You’re the minister.”
“Yes,” I respond. “I’m a priest.”
“Yes, I called the police on you before. A Black man jogging in this neighborhood is suspicious. LOL!”
My wife could see the sheer horror on the face of the guy who made this introduction. He backs away from the conversation and says, “I don’t want lightning to strike me!”
“What?,” asks the OG. “If I was in a Black neighborhood, jogging, I’m sure they’d call the police on me too!”
The conversation continued without incident. #TheLordIsMyStrength #ThanksBeToGod
Now the older gentleman wants to introduce me to his wife, who heads the Neighborhood Watch. He introduces us to a few other people in the Association and Watch. I guess he was letting the powers that be see us for themselves, that we now had the stamp of approval?
We stayed a while, interacting with those who continued to make conversation. Our son was having a good time running around with playmates from school. It was nice to meet some of our neighbors. As we left, we fell out laughing at the experience. It’s unbelievable…but true! And, the experience was so rich.
The Lessons of White Privilege
- As a Black person/couple in a white environment, you don’t have to worry about being shy.
- In other social setting, introverts don’t stand a chance. It’s intimidating when you’re in a setting with strangers. How do you approach groups of people who at least seem to know each other? How do you find your way into the group?Yet, my wife and I learned that we don’t have to worry in those particular social settings. As the only Black family, you stand out. Many people are wondering: “what are they doing here?” Some of those people will be compelled to find out. Some will simply be awkward, but at least they tried. Some will be pleasurable, and you’re grateful they tried. Some will be disrespectful, and you’ll wish they hadn’t tried.
- White Privilege Needs No Apology
- The thing that made this experience so incredibly interesting is that the older gentleman looked me in my eyes and told me he had called the police on me for jogging in my own neighborhood, without shame or apology. There was no remorse for making such a judgment. He wasn’t convicted by his own actions, which proved the error of his prejudice. To him, the whole thing was just a matter of face. He had no regard for my feelings…my hurt, disappointment, fear and disgust. For him, it was just a part of life. His perspective didn’t allow him to even consider how I might be affected.
- White Privilege excuses their fear as being natural
- A Black man, simply jogging in the morning is suspicious. Maybe because Black people don’t jog. Or, because Black people don’t belong in this neighborhood. But, whatever the case, to him: his was a normal fear. And, as head of the Neighborhood Association married to the Neighborhood Watch Chair, he felt no need to investigate his fear. Clearly, he saw me. But, he couldn’t simply come outside and introduce himself. He had to call the police. If I hadn’t made myself known to the police, I might have been running without identification and been picked up. Then I would have possibly been in custody until they could find my wife and verify my identity and address.
The OG alluded to the racism in Apopka, and that I would have been shot if I was seen running in that neighborhood back in the day. I should be thankful that he only called the police. Yet, what about the truly neighborly step of simply introducing yourself?
White Privilege and the Fear of the Black Man: Take Two
All of this brings me to a sad vindication. For in the final analysis, my paranoia was well-placed. We talk so much about the fear of the Black man, that we ignore the fear of the Black man. Society feels justified in being afraid of Black men, and acting upon those fears. But, what about the fears of Black men in this Society?
Knowing we are one of few, if not only, Black family in this neighborhood, and having had a previous racially suspicious encounter with a neighbor, I decided to become known to neighborhood law enforcement. Should anyone be forced to live like this? How many of you have moved into a neighborhood and made meeting all of neighborhood law enforcement your priority?
That’s White privilege: the freedom to move into a neighborhood without worrying that your neighbors will call the police on you simply for jogging while Black. But, as a man: protecting and providing for my family also includes making plans for people to act on their prejudices.
My wife and I have a theory on what happened:
OG saw me jogging one morning and called the police. The Deputies patrolling the neighborhood respond and casually drive by me on my route. We know each other, so we wave at each other. The responding Deputy then return to OG and let’s him know I’m “good.”
“I’s got my freedom papers, suh!”
What if I had not planned? What if I had not prepared? What if I was not known by the Sheriff’s Deputies patrolling my neighborhood? What if I hadn’t had conversations with my 10-year old son? It’s very likely one of us could have shared in Trayvon Martin’s fate.
White Privilege is Dangerous
Some Whites say Blacks see racism everywhere. But so many places are coated with racial residue that it’s hard not to see it. White privilege almost got me killed…or at least almost harassed by the police.
So now, I must be even more vigilant in protecting my family. I must continue to make myself known…to make my family known, so I can feel more safe when my son is playing or traveling through his neighborhood alone.
There must be more dialogue to help people uncover how white privilege impacts their lives: both Blacks and Whites (and all others). We need to create space where people can learn how acting on their prejudices impacts others: physically, mentally and emotionally. This is preemptive work that should be done before neighborhood watch captains either take matters into their own hands or the police are called to encounter a unarmed Black men.
I believe the Church is particularly charged for this work. After all, Christ called us to be one. The journey to the Promised Land is about this work. May the Lord grant us the strength and courage to engage it and each other!