If Only Life Was Black and White Like Me - Part 1
Updated: Jun 16
A three-part series of open letters from a biracial man to a hurting nation
To my dear white family and friends,
As you well know, this is an incredibly trying time for our nation. Who would have thought we would exit the fear-filled mysteriousness of a worldwide pandemic right into this societal hurricane of nationwide racial tension? The situation we find ourselves in is extraordinarily complicated and sensitive. If only life was black and white, like me, we would all know exactly what to say, think, feel, and do in times like these.
I know that as a brown-skinned, biracial (black and white) man you think that this is all very hard for me to process. And it is! But it’s important for me to recognize that you, too, are going through a lot as this all unfolds. It’s not easy for you. You might feel pressured to say the “right” thing or to post your dark box on black out Tuesday, but feel unsure as to why it means you’re a racist if you fail to do so. According to many people, you can’t say anything right, but staying silent is also wrong. You’re sometimes being asked not just to condemn the horrific murder of George Floyd, but to also encourage and accept the violence that swept the nation following it. You’re not just told to support the arrest and prosecution of his murderer; you’re also challenged to promote the idea that all law enforcement should be punished for his behavior.
It feels unfair to be told you can’t say what you really think because of your skin color. It is a horrible feeling to be ostracized and told you are inherently wrong because of an aspect of your person that you cannot change. So, I want to come out and say it:
You are not inherently evil or racist because you are white.
I’m glad we got that out of the way. Now, let’s talk more about what’s going on. One positive result of the wrongful death of George Floyd is the amount of learning, discussions, and growth taking place. I see many of you making efforts like never before to learn more about black history, our current struggles, and just the general experience of being black in America today. I’d like to share on a few of those as well.
Being raised by a black father from the projects and a white mother from a farming community led to a great deal of confusion for me as a kid. I was raised on Kenny Chesney and Tupac (two of the all time greats, no doubt). I didn’t know which way I was supposed to talk, act, dress, etc., but this challenge went way deeper than deciding whether to wear a cowboy hat or a fitted cap.
As kids, we all just want to fit in and feel like we belong somewhere. With my white family, I was the obvious standout because of my skin color. With my black family, it was apparent that the light-skinned kid wearing a Tommy Hilfiger shirt tucked into his pants was a little different as well. This uniqueness was amplified by the constant reminder, from both blacks and whites, that I was, in fact, not black at all. This was often attributed to the way that I dressed, spoke, and carried myself. Nevertheless, in my teenage years I fought hard to overcompensate for this “lack of ethnicity” that I would never truly understand, even to this day. Though, it never really helped, and I was always left feeling like the odd man out.
Do you remember the last time you were the only white person in a room full of black or brown people? Many of the white people I know can count on one hand the number of times they’ve found themselves in that scenario. I’ve been witness to the experience of it for many white friends and family as they were the only white person in a black barbershop, a basketball game, a comedy show, a concert, or even just a neighborhood. Almost every single time it has happened, the standout individual has felt uncomfortable to the extent that they feel the need to point it out in the moment and will remember it for years. I empathize with that experience because I know the discomfort. I have just come to know it in much more intimate ways.
Do you know what it’s like to be the only person of your skin color at your own family reunion? In your honors math class in high school? In your platoon in the Army? In your church on Sunday? Or in your office at work? Obviously, most people can’tknow what that is like due to lack of experience; however, I want you to take a moment and imagine it. Bring back to mind the feelings you had in the situations I just called back to your mind of feeling alone and isolated when nobody in the room looked like you. It’s uneasy. It’s lonely. It’s noticeable. You can’t help but wonder sometimes if someone is looking at you funny because they notice it too. We all know what it’s like to have someone not like you. We know the feeling of being unwelcome somewhere. But when you’re in a room full of people like yourself, you can assume a nasty look or cold shoulder is either because of your character or that person’s mood. When you’re the only person of your color in the room, you almost can’t help but wonder what role that fact plays in the way people treat you.
This nagging curiosity or wonder would go on to haunt me for years.
I was never as close with my mom’s family as I wanted to be growing up. We lived about an hour away from them, but I always wondered if the distance was really what separated us.
I was made fun of for being black by a kid in my third grade class and remember feeling excluded that same year as all (yes, all the white kids claimed to be Irish that day) the kids celebrated their Irish heritage so proudly on St. Patrick’s day. I got in trouble semi-often and was made fun of more as the years went on. Maybe that was why some of my teachers seem to not like me, but I always wondered.
I was forced to recycle mountain phase of US Army Ranger School because one Ranger Instructor single handedly wrote me up enough times to fail me for that cycle. He was a good ole southern boy. Maybe he just had something against me because I fell asleep so much (like every other exhausted ranger student did), but you know, I always wondered.
Admittedly in some of these instances my own stereotypes and prejudices multiplied my fear of being prejudiced myself. It is our unfortunate reality that we all make judgments of others that we sometimes shouldn’t. These judgments begin to form patterns in our minds that, over time, develop stereotypes that can take deep root within us. These stereotypes aren’t always bad, and they aren’t always false. After all, stereotypes are probably the most prime example of something being “funny because it’s true” when presented well in stand up comedy. However, the dark side of these stereotypes is that they divide us. They separate us without our even knowing it. You and I must both strive to be more aware of what stereotypes we’ve created in our minds and how we allow them to negatively affect our thoughts, words, and actions towards others.
We won’t always succeed in doing this. We should embrace the guilt we may now feel for times when we failed to be morally upright. However, we must always avoid the shame. Guilt lets us know that what we did was bad, while shame is shouting overtop of that claiming that weare bad. Guilt is meant to lead us to repentance with God and our neighbor, but shame keeps us stuck in sin and leads to even greater problems than the ones that created it in the first place.
I believe that the constant shame we place on each other is what leads to us reacting so outrageously in times like these. The violence, looting, and death that has resulted from the wrongful death of George Floyd should not be condoned. It doesn’t make you any less of a morally sound human to acknowledge that stealing Jordans from the mall or setting cars on fire won’t expedite the trial of Derek Chauvin. Those actions don’t provide constructive, practical ways for reform to take place within law enforcement. George Floyd’s death doesn’t justify the destruction of more life and property. You don’t need to condone that in order to be a good person. Endorsing and condoning the sins of others is a form of sin itself, but we will have more on that in part three, we’re just getting started.
I encourage you to continue to stand alongside your friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. who are struggling right now. It is an especially fitting time for change. There is a great deal of growth that needs to take place in police forces, in politics, in the prison systems, in our lower
income communities, and most importantly, in our hearts. It is my hope and prayer that you will continue to listen and educate yourself with an open mind. Take any action you can to advance the causes of peace, justice, and equality in our country. Let this also be a time for you to reflect on ways that you can improve society by improving yourself. Embrace the discomfort and anxiety of this time as best you can. It is good that we should struggle together to make a better world for the generations to come.
Be your best,
Nathan Crankfield is a convert to the Catholic faith. He is a proud graduate of Bishop McDevitt High School, Mount St. Mary's University, and US Army Ranger School. After serving four years of active duty in the US Army, he joined the staff at Dynamic Catholic as a parish consultant. Find more of his writing by visiting our blog section here