The first time I experienced being called the “n word” to my face was something that instantly made me react. I was having lunch with a few friends on the “white side” of the cafeteria. We sat at the same table every day. This particular day a relative of one of the kids I was eating with came over and sat down with us. He looked me in the eye and asked why wasn’t I sitting with them, pointing to the other black kids seated at the back of the cafeteria.

I was a pretty quiet kid in school. I felt awkward around people I didn’t know. I let him know I’m eating with my friends and I don’t know anybody over there. He stood up and looked at me and said, “Go to your side, you f****** n*****.” 

I immediately reacted. I had never been in a real fight before, but I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him across the table. I was much taller than he was, and I just remember having him by the neck in the air.

The principal, who was having his lunch at the teacher’s table no more than 15 feet away, ran behind me and put me in a headlock. All I remember is him telling me to let him go. At the time, I didn’t understand why he was yelling at me and didn’t say anything to this other kid, even after he escorted us both to his office. I told him what happened, and he said he didn’t care and that I should never put my hands on anyone. 

When I got home and told my Mom what happened, she went back to the school to talk with the principal. He told my mom he was sitting nearby, and the kid never said that. He also said it was strange that I would be sitting with the white kids.

About 15 years ago, I went to visit my best friend in Oak Harbor, Washington. 

We were both stationed there in the early ’90s, but he returned for a second tour before going back to San Diego. Anyone that has ever visited Oak Harbor knows there isn’t much of a nightlife there. We made the decision to head up to Vancouver, B.C., for the weekend. After living in hot climates since leaving Washington, I wasn’t prepared for colder weather. We headed into a clothing store so I could pick up a jacket or sweater. 

Maybe I am a weirdo, but I would rather know someone is racist than to have someone wait until I’m not around to make a comment. I want to know what I am dealing with. 

The store was empty except for a group of young white teens. I wasn’t really focused on anything other than to pick a jacket and go. I heard some conversations going on around me, but again, I didn’t pay attention to it. All I heard was one of them ask loudly to make sure I heard him, “Do anyone know where their FUBU store is?”, and then giggled. 

My friend came over and said to me, “I think they are talking about you.” One of them looked at me and said, “The FUBU store is down the street.” Once again, I had that moment where I just reacted. I said so many things that I don’t recall them saying anything back. I put the jacket back and walked out. I just remember looking down at my hands and shaking uncontrollably. 

As the years went by, I personally never had any issues with overtly racist people while I was in San Diego. Sure, there was racism, but I never had to interact with them because I stayed in my bubble. 

Still, I did have moments when I was sure some decisions were racially motivated. 

Preparing for my sunset tour, I took a couple weeks to drive across the country to my new home in Philadelphia. I stopped in Albuquerque for an overnight stay. I arrived there late afternoon, so I decided to take a walk to find dinner. On my way back to the hotel, I had to cross a street. Again, I wasn’t paying too much attention to people, but I was watching my surroundings. All of the sudden I hear “Hey n*****”, “You n***** in the yellow shirt.” I was obviously ignoring them. I was in a city where I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t want to get jumped by anyone either. Humiliated and hurt, I still held my head high and went back to my room.

This brings us to the last 8 years I’ve been in Pennsylvania. When I first arrived here, I had a discussion with my Dad about how I have never been made more aware that I am a black man than here. 

Before I moved into the city, I lived in the suburbs. I lived in an apartment building made up of 11 units. When I moved in, I was one of two black residents. The other was an older lady that said she had just moved back to Pennsylvania and was looking for a house to buy in the area, so she could be close to her daughter and grandchildren. She was hardly around, and when she was, we would have long casual conversations. 

The neighbor that lived across the hall was an older guy that seemed to avoid me at every opportunity. There were two entrances to the building. If I happened to be leaving the same time as he was, he would go back in and wait until I got in my car, and then he would come out. 

The first few times, I didn’t think much of it. But after four years of being this guy’s neighbor, I knew it was intentional. This was when I started to pay attention to people and their reactions to me. The white women would pull their purses close if I passed by. The click of the car door locking when I walked by a car. 

Nothing would prepare me for the slurs that I would receive on the dating apps from others in the area. 

After a while, I just gave up. 

There is nothing worse than being in a new city with no friends and people that don’t want to have anything to do with you because you have a different skin color. Moving into Center City Philadelphia, I imagined things would get better, but I encountered the same reactions and even worse. 

I’ll never forget my very first interaction with the police in the city. Every morning, I would take the dog out before work. There aren’t many places to park in the city. There are even fewer places to take a dog out to go potty. 

It was around 4:30 A.M. when I was out walking the dog, waiting for him to pick his perfect spot — which wasn’t quick. I noticed a police vehicle every time I moved to a different block. Finally, he turned his spotlight on and asked what I was doing. I looked down at the dog and replied, “baking a cake.” I’m not sure if I was overly sensitive, or if he was just profiling me. I have a strong suspicion it was the latter.

Eventually, things have gotten better. I have new friends and a great group of professional black friends like myself.

While not all racism is overt, I share my experiences with you because I want you to know racism is very real. If you are white, you may have never knowingly witnessed it. But I urge you to believe people of color, because we aren’t making it up. 

This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Modern Military Magazine.