The summer before my sophomore year at Edina High School, I had my first awakening of what it means to be black in America. What it means to always “fit the description.” What it means to never be given the benefit of the doubt.
I was 16. Before that August night, I was innocent in all the ways you expect a sheltered suburban kid to be. What did I understand about racism in this country? I thought the worst was behind us and, sure, once in a while it would rear its ugly head.
But then four white officers introduced me to racism. I replay the memory every time another black body becomes a hashtag.
Minnesota summers are filled with rituals to help you forget the cruel winters — endless festivals, fairs, swimming pools, lake outings, patio dinners with friends. That night, two friends and I ate dinner at Hot Wok, our favorite local Chinese food spot, after a long day of swimming. On our walk home, a policeman stopped us one block from our Centennial Lakes neighborhood. He asked for names and IDs. He wanted to know why we were out so late.
The time? 8:30 p.m.
The police called for backup and told us to get on the sidewalk, instructing us to sit on our hands. I asked repeatedly why we were being detained; I just couldn’t mask my anger and frustration. We got no answers. We were told to keep quiet and not get up. Cars drove by slowly. We felt embarrassed and kept our heads down. It was deliberate humiliation and we didn’t deserve it.
An hour passed and another cop arrived. My friends and I still didn’t know why this was happening. I was angrier than my friends. They’re two years older and, looking back, I realize they knew more than me. They knew how these things went and had memorized the survival scripts.
After another 30 minutes, the cops finally told us we fit the description of three men who were keying cars in a Macaroni Grill parking lot earlier that evening. They told us to go home without making any stops.
After a couple weeks, I was still pretty angry about the incident. So I decided to head for the Macaroni Grill in search of answers. I wanted to speak with whoever was there that night, whoever was responsible for calling police.
A supervisor told me the kids keying cars were white. He assured me they gave this description to the police.
‘We have cameras’
After my encounter with the police, I quickly moved on. I didn’t talk about it. I chose not to feel bitter or angry toward the police. I didn’t want to believe it was racism. That would have forced me to confront some ugly truths, and I wasn’t ready for that.
A few months passed. With Christmas a few weeks away, my friend and I went to Southdale Center to look at lights and kill time. We entered Macy’s and started looking at wallets. After a few minutes, a white middle-age sales clerk approached. She said to us with a grin, “Just so you know, we have cameras.”
We asked what she meant by that. Sensing our unhappiness, she claimed she meant nothing. We complained to her manager and received an apology and coupons. Another sales clerk, a Hispanic male, told us she treats all the nonwhite customers that way.
At this point, something switched in my brain. I suddenly saw the pattern. I kept encountering racism at the hands of white adults. I took comfort in the notion that maybe it’s just a generational thing, maybe racism will die off by the time I have kids of my own.
When you’re young, emotions are fleeting. Things happen and, at the time, they may seem soul-crushing, but you quickly forget and continue living. Only when you get older do you realize the effect of these experiences. At age 29, these incidents are still very much with me.
I’m jaded now. I’ve seen too many hashtags and the spectacle of dead black bodies on TV. If race is a social construct and isn’t real, then racism surely is. For black Americans, it’s an unwanted birthmark we all share.
As an adult, I see this country differently from when I was a carefree teenager. My youthful encounters with racism made me vigilant and quick to stand up to even the slightest perception of bias. And now, with injustices being broadcast to the world, I have become unapologetically black. I no longer go along to get along. The only way to truly be seen is to be heard and that is why I became a writer. Black people need to be heard and believed when we say racism is real. There is no victim or race card. The racism we experience is not imagined; it’s a sickness this country needs to heal from.
Yasin Mohamud is a writer in Minneapolis.
ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.