When I was little, my dad used to take our family to the track and let us race against each other. The winner always got to choose dessert. I used to try to figure out which lane I needed to be in so I could outrun my father and my brother. My mom used to laugh as she told me that the only person I was ever running against was the person I was yesterday. She said that the hard lessons are learned over and over again and that the real challenge is to come face to face with the person we used to be and outrun him. I knew she was not talking about track, but I could not understand how I could outrun myself.
I have been in private schools in Baltimore City all my life. When I was in elementary school, I was the only African American boy in my grade. Every day, I was reminded in subtle ways that I did not belong and that I was different. There were two communities: The first was built within the school, where teachers did what they could to include me. The second was harder to understand because it was built over the weekend and during after-school, parent-arranged play dates. My family and I were rarely invited or included.
When I was 6, a boy in my class made up a game called “Let’s get the black boy.” I do not remember the details, but I do remember that I spent the entire recess running. I do not know if it was because I was scared or if I was just playing the game.
I still attend school with the boy who made up the game and most of the boys who played it. They probably do not remember, but I do and my mother does. It was one of the moments that marked our family and defined who we were going to be in this world. My mother changed her career at that moment and devoted herself to doing diversity training to confront these issues within the schools.
I am almost 17, and I am still running against that 6-year-old boy who spent the entire recess running away. I tell myself often that if a moment like that happens again — when I am faced with racism, white supremacy and racial insensitivity, even cloaked in childhood games — I want to be able to stand instead of run, and I want to be able to clearly articulate what my white classmates are doing with those games.
I thought about this a few weeks ago when racially charged Halloween photographs showing white students dressed in prison garb went viral. The photos included racist captions as they were passed around social media. My white classmates seemingly could not understand what our classmate in one of the photos had done wrong.
There was very little empathy and few attempts to seek understanding; some students counterprotested to stand with our classmate. It was hard for me because I believe that there is a direct correlation between that childhood game that was never challenged or discussed and growing up to believe that racial insensitivity and intolerance are things that should be taken lightly.
My classmates and I talked about this recent incident almost every day. I tried to explain what was wrong with these photographs and what they say about race relations at my school and in this community. I talked with my parents, trying to figure out how to make my white classmates understand what it means to be black and male in America. There are days when I do not completely understand it myself.
There are days when I feel like every other 11th-grader, consumed with thoughts of the upcoming exams or college or girls. Some days, I do not think about being black, or that I attend schools that would have denied admission to my grandfather, or the gnawing feeling that I am, as Maya Angelou wrote, the hope and dream of the slave. Those are the days when I feel normal and when I can breathe. It is during those other moments, when I am trying to articulate what it feels like to be black in America, when I am painfully aware that the color of my skin is steeped in a legacy of enslavement, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter and white kids chasing a lone black boy around the playground while white teachers looked on but never interceded.
I know that for some people, the Halloween incident was just a set of photographs, but for me and for people who look like me, it was yet another reminder that no matter how fast we run, how successful we become or how hard we try, we will never outrun the image of the black man that the white world sees.
Kofi Elijah Whitehead is an 11th-grader in Baltimore.
Read more about this issue: