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Column: You don’t have to be 'racist' to perpetrate racist behaviors

Column: You don’t have to be 'racist' to perpetrate racist behaviors

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As a mixed man, with white parents, three black brothers and two white brothers, and now a white fiancee, my world and my perspective have always been a little bit different from others.

Growing up, you don’t really see or understand race. I just wanted to play with my friends with no thought to the color of their skin or my own. I was able to live a privileged life without dealing with some of the consequences of race because I was too young to notice.

Race never became an issue until I started to get older and realized there were ways that certain people treated me or things I couldn’t do that some of my other friends could do. This is when I started to see that my privilege and my race began to collide and butt heads.

I want to emphasize that I have been able to live a privileged life. For starters, I was adopted into a loving and amazing family when life for me could have very easily been foster homes until I became 18. This is something that I can never repay my parents for.

I was privileged to be raised in a home with two parents, in a neighborhood where violence, hunger and poverty weren’t present. I was raised in a family that was multicultural where we were allowed to decide who we wanted to be, without judgment.

For anybody who knows my family, you know what a diverse group we are. We were raised to believe that everybody was equal and through hard work and determination, any dreams could be imagined. We all took our own paths through life, with the guidance of our parents, to become who each one of us is today. This was truly a blessing for us.

But with all the blessings that come with what I have been privileged with, at the end of the day, I am still a black man, and with that comes systemic racism that many never see. What many don’t understand is that you don’t have to be “racist” to perpetrate racist behaviors. People who I call dear friends often say or do things without racist intent but that are at their core racist behaviors.

If I could count the times that I’ve been told by a white person that I speak, act or dress white, I’d be a very rich man. Usually this isn’t said to be hurtful to me but something that I’m instead supposed to take as a compliment.

However, when you really look at it, you’re saying that because I can speak clearly and eloquently, or wear a certain brand, that that somehow inherently makes me white? You’re saying that if I spoke slang or more aggressively or wore a more urban brand, that would somehow make me more black?

What’s intended as a compliment is really saying that “white” things have more value than “black” things or that me acting a certain way makes me more or less “black.” Maybe it just makes you more comfortable to be around me ... because, at the end of the day, in the eyes of anybody who sees me, I’m still going to be a black man.

No matter how I speak, dress or act, that fact will never change nor would I want it to change. I’m proud of who I am and proud to be black. To say that I’m anything less than that is to discredit me of my identity. It may not feel like a negative to you, but I’m not here to be placed in the box that fits your agenda and will not feel any less for it.

What does being a black man mean to me based on my experiences?

  • It means that if I’m put in a situation where friends are running from the cops or talking back, I cannot in fear that I will be seen as an aggressor or agitator purely because of the color of my skin.
  • It means that when I go to stores with my parents, they can walk freely while I am followed around the store despite the fact that we’re there together.
  • It means that my mom has to worry about the safety of me and my brothers just a little bit more because of where we live and what I look like.
  • It means that when I go in for a job interview and people see that my name is Jake O’Connor, they’re confused because what they’re seeing in person doesn’t match what they envisioned when they saw my resume.
  • It means that when I succeed on the athletic field, it’s often attributed not to hard work and dedication but due to the fact that I “have an extra bone in my leg” that somehow enables me to be faster and stronger.
  • It means that when I got into various good colleges, I’m told it was due to the fact that I was helped by affirmative action and not by the fact that I did indeed do well in school on my own.
  • It means that I have to endure white friends asking me why they can’t say the “N” word or asking if I would be OK if they said it as a term of endearment, despite it being a term I never use.
  • It’s being told by women whom I’ve dated or been interested in that it wouldn’t work out because their parents or their friends wouldn’t approve of me based on my skin color.
  • It’s having people cross the street, clutch their bags or lock their cars purely because I’m walking by.
  • It’s being followed in certain neighborhoods because I don’t look like the type of person who would belong there.
  • It means being told by white friends who are tanning that I’m almost as dark as you, as if that’s a distinct advantage because at the end of the day, you’re just tan and I’m still black.

The list goes on.

With all that being said, I’ve lived an amazing and fortunate life. Because of my situation, I get to see both sides of the spectrum, a unique perspective that many don’t get to see. I have friends of all shapes, colors and sizes, and I love all of them equally.

Many of them are subjected to the same systemic racist experiences that I have encountered. Many have seen much more racism and in far worse degrees. Many of my white friends have never had to see this side of life or, if they have, they’ve been able to blissfully ignore it. That’s where the issue lies, in the ignorance and silence of good people.

Too often, people see things and don’t speak up simply because they don’t understand or don’t care. I myself have done this far too often. As somebody who hates confrontation, when I hear a white person drop the “N” word or say a derogatory joke, I’ve often turned the other cheek. For that I apologize for not taking the opportunity to educate.

If we’re going to create a better world for everybody, we have to speak up. It’s time to call out those who are able to sit blissfully by. Because while you post inspirational quotes preaching love and joy for all and use #ThisIsAmerica featuring a picture of you on your boat or at your river house, you’re really speaking for a privileged few. That is the America for the few, not for the many.

Too many of these same “lovers of life” have been absent these past few weeks. Where are the posts of love for all? I don’t care if you’re Democrat, Republican or moderate; we all owe one another common decency, and many in America at this time are not receiving that decency. Yes, All Lives Matter, but today, #BlackLivesMatter because today, black lives are being endangered and threatened.

So what do we do from here? I truly cannot answer that for you. There are numerous outlets for you to express your support whether through donations, supporting local black-owned businesses, social media activism, peaceful protest and more. But I urge you to do something over nothing.

Maybe it makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you lose followers or a friend or two. If that’s the case, maybe you should ask yourself why people are abandoning you when you support what is right and good.

However, I think the biggest thing any one of us can do is to educate ourselves. Let’s take this opportunity to learn and ask questions, have conversations and value the perspective that others may have when you walk a mile in their shoes.

You may have known me for years and never heard or seen some of the injustices that I’ve witnessed and, for a long time, I did that purposely because I didn’t want to show that it bothered me.

But now is no longer the time for silence. I am privileged, but I am also black, and I have a story to tell. For those who want to keep the conversation going, hear more of my perspective or provide insight of their own, I’d love to talk more. You know where to find me!

Jake O’Connor, 31, grew up in Richmond and graduated from Douglas Freeman High School and the College of William & Mary. He works in Washington, D.C., as a senior project manager at Navy Federal Credit Union. He can be reached at He is the son of longtime Richmond Times-Dispatch sports reporter John O’Connor.

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