I'm at the apex of what some of my former friends are calling my "black militant" phase when the race war breaks out at school. And, okay, it's obviously not a for real war—it's barely a struggle, more like a rift—but the local media has dubbed it so, and in the process blown the entire thing up if you ask me.
That isn't to say I'm not deeply involved and very passionate about it all, just I think it's unfair that when stupid, racist shit is going down and we take a stand against it, suddenly there's a "war" happening. Nobody called the micro-aggressions leading up to the proposed walkout a war. Nah, when a kid writes an insane op-ed airing out his prejudices and tries to get one of the best teachers at the school fired, well that's just plain old American freedom of speech.
I'm trying to explain this all to my dad when he asks why he got a call from the vice principal today threatening disciplinary action if my antics at school don't cease.
"'Antics'," my dad repeats. "He really used that word, Dex. What's going on, exactly? It's not like you to cause trouble."
"I'm not causing trouble. We're just planning a walkout."
"Beg pardon?" he replies, which he always does when he thinks what he's heard is so ridiculous he needs you to say it again, even if it was, like my previous statement, perfectly reasonable. So annoying.
"A walkout? Second period? To protest the suspension of Ms. Piper?"
My dad looks lost. The man is oblivious, I swear. He's usually the last to know about anything happening at school, with either me or my little sister, Mica. I'm surprised the vice principal even knew how to get in touch with him, honestly. I'm even more surprised that he didn't call my mom instead. But, if I stop to think about it, I'd be willing to bet perhaps the choice was intentional. I mean, if I were an old white guy dealing with a mixed kid inciting, you know, a whole "race war", I'd probably call the white parent first too.
But I could just be feeling a little cynical about all of this.
"Who is Ms. Piper? Which one was she, the AP English teacher? No, wait, that was—"
"She's not even my teacher dad, but everyone loves her, and I'm planning on taking her AP US Government and Politics class next year. Plus, she's our advisor for the Black Student Union."
"Ah," Dad says, pretending to realize we've discussed this before. Sometimes I truly believe years of pot smoking have addled his memory, but I haven't mentioned this to him. Even I know it's lame and ironic for a teenage boy to have the don't-do-drugs talk with his own father.
"She was the one they were talking about on the news? Suspended 'cause the executive board of the PTA went nuts about a class discussion and assignment."
"Right, right. What was the assignment?"
I sigh. My dad is probably paying more attention to the guitar he's tuning than this conversation he initiated about my so-called antics.
"Dad. Father. Focus." I call him "father" when I'm trying to get his attention about something serious, and it always makes him laugh a little. He says it's because I used to call him that in this really proper tone when I was super little, as prim and elegant about it as a toddler can manage. Sure enough, he grins broadly, but finally stops messing around with his E-string. "So this kid, white kid," I continue, "wore this t-shirt that said 'ChiRaq' and Ms. Piper took the opportunity to discuss all the violence in the city and black gang crime, which she said the shirt was, like, trivializing, you know? So anyway, it led to a broader discussion that ended up in an assignment of an essay on the city's demographics versus the school's, and anything that may be significant about that." Dad just nods like he wants me to keep going and I sigh again. "Northland is, like, the whitest school in the district. I mean, I don't have any hard numbers or anything, but it sure seems that way. Kwame says so all the time, and he'd probably know the actual stats."
"Ah yes, Kwame," Dad replies, looking sort of amused for some reason. I guess maybe I'm saying "Kwame says" a lot lately.
"Well he knows everything, practically," I say with a shrug. My face feels a little hot. "Dad, I don't think you're getting the major point here."
"Hm?" His fingers are running along the strings again. I roll my eyes.
"Like, this white kid at this super white school in a super black city wears a shirt glorifying black on black gang violence happening right here, now, and a black teacher wants to talk about everything wrong with that and somehow she's silenced by some…asshole with a column in his high school newspaper?" I blink at him for a few moments. "How is that okay?"
"I suppose it isn't, son." He has this resigned look on his face like he's still not sure why it's so important to me, but really wants to be supportive. I wanna be like, for a guy with a black wife and kids, you just don't get it at all. But, I don't know—it feels too weird to actually say. Someone else could easily argue that I don't really get it. If you looked at me, you probably couldn't tell I would even identify as black. I've got my mother's hair texture, maybe a little curlier, but it's closer to my dad's sandy blond in color. And then there are the deep blue eyes I inherited from him. Light brown skin and all, people still usually don't guess I'm "half black" (a designation I really hate).
But I do know what it's like to feel out of the majority, to be an "other". To have people guess your ethnicity and try to tell you you're lying when you answer their intrusive questions. To have people assume your mother, when you're a child, is the nanny rather than the woman who provided you with half of your genome. Since I'm pretty sure I can't say I've lived the white experience, I've chosen to identify a black. Because it feels right. Because I can.
Since race is just a social construct, after all. Invented by white people.
And it's not like I hate or even dislike white people. That'd be pretty ridiculous, and difficult, with a white father who I love. I am, however, tired of being made to feel less because of skin color, tired of accepting the status quo in a world where a white kid writes a vile article full of hate and lies about a teacher that can get that teacher suspended, a world where the counter article Kwame wrote isn't printed because his point of view is too "controversial".
I just can't handle the world if calling out racist bullshit is controversial, you know?
So I'm rambling all of this to my dad and when I pause for a breath he asks, "How's Kwame doing anyway?" I want to be like, what's the obsession with Kwame, but then I think about it a little harder and realize my dad might not be as oblivious as I thought.
He's totally onto the fact that I'm into this guy.
And okay, we've never had the "I'm gay" talk, but he must know. He has to. I've never had or been interested in having a girlfriend, though maybe he could write that off as me being too much of a school obsessed nerd to care about socializing myself like a regular hetero teenage guy. As I'm thinking about all of this I realize I've paused too long and my dad has this irritating grin on his face and I groan. "Father! Focus please. I'm trying to discuss my antics with you and you want to talk about irrelevant stuff."
It can be hard keeping your parents in line sometimes.
I guess I can acknowledge that my hopeless, unrequited crush on Kwame has maybe, like, a tiny part to do with my getting so involved in this walkout and stuff. Not the feeling or passion behind it, no, those are all mine, but I'm not normally one to get so involved. But I think there's just something very magnetic and leader-like about Kwame, something that's drawn others to the cause, not just me. He's prone to making big, speech like pronouncements, even when he's just talking to you one on one, like some teenage MLK and Obama hybrid or something. In fact, those are probably two of his biggest heroes. I lean more radical and leftist than that, but that's to be expected with parents as weird as mine, probably. Kwame wants to go to Morehouse like Martin Luther King, and then Harvard Law like our President, and then probably to the White House. I've had more than one dream about being the first First Husband, which is just pathetic I know.
I'm in the hallway, listening to him discuss the benefits and drawbacks of attending a historically black college, when our esteemed vice principal claps both of us on our backs in an entirely too friendly gesture. "How's it going Kwame? Dexter?"
"Fine?" Kwame answer-asks. We both obviously know something is going on.
"Have a minute to chat in my office?" Kwame raises an eyebrow at me and I have to suppress a grin, not because I'm amused or anything but because he looks really cute when he does it. I mean, get it together Dex.
So we go to his office and he closes the door behind us, sits at his desk with his hands clasped tightly together, fingers intertwined, so we know he's in no joking mood. Nobody says anything for at least a minute then finally he's like, "I hope you're aware of how seriously the school is taking this."
"Taking what? The unjustified suspension of Ms. Piper or our protest?" Kwame asks.
"I was referring to the protest Mr. Watson, but rest assured that—"
"That you're about to give us some lip service about how you're all thoroughly investigating the incident and proper procedure has been enforced and blah blah," I finish for him. He turns sharply and literally, like, glares at me. I'm not one to talk back, that's more my little sister's thing, but I guess her habit made some sort of impression on me because I don't think that was half-bad sass. I see Kwame smirk out of the corner of my eye and feel tingly and proud before remembering I'm in trouble at the moment and gulping a little.
"Be advised Mr. Cleary, Mr. Watson: if any student walks out as proposed on Thursday, we will be forced to suspend them. Have I made myself clear?"
"Suspend them for what?"
"Causing a disturbance and skipping class."
Kwame actually rolls his eyes, and I've never seen him do it before, but that's how dumb the answer was. Causing a disturbance? What is he, a cop now?
"That'll be all," Vice Principal says, dismissing us with a hand wave. We both get up saying nothing, and exit his office. If Kwame is anything like me, and let's face it most kids at Northland are, he's scared shitless at the proposition of being suspended. I can see the question burning behind his eyes already: "Can they revoke college acceptance for this?"
"What are we gonna do?" I ask.
"Nonviolent resistance," he replies. "Same plan as before."
So I'm in Spanish class, trying my hardest not to freak out. I've never been in trouble before, really, and it occurs to me that my fourteen year old little sister has more experience taking on the brass than I do, and maybe I should ask her for advice. Then I think about how pathetic that'd be and focus on deep breathing and the differences between ser and estar to try to calm down when the teacher tells us to partner up for a dialogue assignment.
Life was easier before the black militant phase. I had friends I thought understood me and could relate to me, before, but now I know I have those friends only fewer in number. It makes life more difficult for things like class assignments. I glance around, watching everyone eagerly pair together, and I look like a lost puppy I'm sure before this guy is sliding his chair over to me, looking really excited about it for some reason. I've noticed him before, because of his long hair and the multicolored streaks he puts in it, but we've never spoken.
"Uh, hey," I reply. "I guess we're partners?"
He's giggling—really, there's no other way to put it. I start to wonder what's going on. "I guess so. I'm Landon."
I try to raise my eyebrow with the gravitas that Kwame does, but he giggles again so I probably didn't pull it off. No matter. "So, five minute dialogue using these vocab words. Any thoughts?"
"Aren't you in GSA?"
I fail to see what the Gay Straight Alliance has to do with the project, but nod affirmatively anyway. He smiles back and I notice how perfect his teeth are, wonder if braces were a factor. The orthodontist did an excellent job, if so.
"You haven't been to a meeting in a while," he notes, drumming his pen on his notebook.
"I've been busy with the Black Student Union protest," I tell him, slipping into business mode. "I'm sure you've heard about Ms. Piper?"
"Yeah. Fucked up."
"Her maybe being fired," he says with a smile. Like he gets it. Or like he wants me to think he gets it. I have to wonder what's going on all of a sudden, since most of the white students, AKA the student body, have tried to stay uninvolved.
"Yeah. So, we're having a protest if you're interested. On Thursday—"
"Oh no," he cuts me off with a deep laugh, stretching out his no so that it has about four thousand Os. "I can't walk out. My mom would kill me if I got suspended."
"How'd you know about that?"
"News travels fast," he says, wiggling his eyebrows up and down in a way I find surprisingly endearing. "You're not gonna do it, are you?"
"What? Of course I am."
"Dumb move," Landon says, shaking his head.
"What would you know about it," I snap.
"What would you?" he laughs again. "Suspensions go on your permanent record, you know."
"Some things are more important."
"Choose your battles wisely," he counters.
"Fuck off," I say, after a moment of silence. This Spanish dialogue is going well, I think.
"I'm just looking out for you," Landon replies.
"What? Why? Who are you even?"
He smiles sweetly at me, and suddenly I get it. I think I'm being flirted with. The bell rings though, interrupting the nothing he says in reply.
"White privilege," Kwame says in his deep, sexy voice, "is writing an article that can get a teacher fired based just on your word. White privilege is knowing that your voice as student means more than that of one of the most experienced teachers here. White privilege is the ability to ignore these facts because 'race doesn't matter' until another white person says it matters."
The small group of us left clap. We're meeting before the walk out, listening to Kwame pump us up and hoping our crowd grows before the second period bell rings. White privilege, I think, is knowing that your completely benign, nonviolent protest won't be called an escalating race war. We know the cameras are outside, waiting to catch one of the black kids doing something stupid. We know we're facing suspension, and worse, parental punishment. We know it's more important that Ms. Piper be given a chance to come back and teach us, and teach the kids after us.
Being black means knowing even if you're blue eyed and blond haired, brown is brown and it still, to this day, matters.
"We're here to combat this privilege and point it out. We're here to right the wrong that has been done. We're here to fight!" Kwame finishes. All thirty of us applaud, just as the door opens. It's Landon, his hair streaked black, red, and green. Unable to stop myself, I smile.
White privilege is dying your hair for the cause and thinking you're down. But I get where he's coming from, and appreciate it all the same.
"Hey!" he shouts from the entryway. "Fight the power!"