My nephew is thinking of getting a gun. This news comes as a shock. Six years ago, he lived through a school shooting. Not at his school, luckily, but at Marysville Pilchuck High School across town. He knew the shooter, and he knew the victims. As a result, as an adult, he’s a fierce proponent of sane gun policy, but as a Black man in America, he’s scared.
Ryan is an outdoor enthusiast, a music lover and a 22-year-old history buff. When I called to ask about the protests, I thought he’d be involved. After all, I live in the Northwest, too, and I’d seen protests in nearby towns. I’d seen white kids lining the highway holding cardboard signs with the names of Black people killed by the police. In the small community where neighbors met my gay marriage with stoic silence, my wife hung a rainbow-colored Black Lives Matter sign on our cabin.
Ryan put up signs in his yard, too. Four times. They got torn down. On his street, three Confederate flags fly. No one tears those down. They began to appear in large numbers, he told me, after Trump’s election. Before then, when people flew American flags, he shrugged it off. Maybe they were patriots. Live and let live. By 2017, trucks began to sport more sinister symbols, ones associated with white-nationalist groups. After George Floyd’s death, Ryan saw young men flashing white power hand signals at the local Safeway.
Make no mistake, he said, he’s glad to see the protests. He drove to Seattle to take part a few times. He’s also glad white people want to have conversations. Even a year ago, some white friends didn’t believe his stories of police pulling him over for driving his mom’s minivan or the soccer officials who always seemed more eager to nail him than white players. Now his friends are starting to get it.
We talked for a long time. It was not the first conversation we’ve had about race, but it was the most in-depth, and as we talked, it began to feel like a reverse version of the talk parents give their Black sons and daughters about how to stay safe. Ryan was gently driving home his own point: He can never be.
I asked about hope, and Ryan ducked. He is intelligent and clear-eyed. But the bending arc of justice? He’s having none of it.
“You know ‘Ball of Confusion‘? By the Temptations? I love that song because it was written in 1970, and it really shows how little has changed.”
Like many white people, I want to make a difference, and I don’t know how. I’ve written books about civil and Indigenous rights. I vote. I donate. Sometimes I think: What else can I do?
My wife and I attended a protest in our tiny town. We lit candles and recited the names and read poems. We brought the rainbow-colored BLM sign and leaned it against a large wooden cross. In the morning, the sign was missing. I was furious, and I also knew: This is a tiny taste of what Ryan deals with every day.
What else can we do?
We can listen.
Ryan is worried about his safety, about his very life. He saw his world upended once. He knows what one moment of passion can do. He didn’t linger on the details of the shooting. It’s not his story to tell, he said. He wasn’t even there, physically. But still he’s scarred. He will never forget the exact date.
“Oct. 24, 2014. My life will never be the same.”
I love Ryan. I want to be able to tell him that’s all in the past. I want to be able say he shouldn’t be scared.
But I can’t.