My earliest memory of racism was in fifth grade during my parent teacher conference, at Parkside Elementary School in Fond du Lac. During my parent teacher conference, Mrs. Theisen told my white mother, “I thought Devon was going to be a bad kid. He looked like a bad kid. I thought he was going to be trouble.” In fact, I beat every kid in my class when it came to reading, writing, math, science, and English. My fifth grade teacher made a preconceived notion about me based off my skin color. My school teacher. My teacher that’s supposed to educate me. A teacher that’s supposed to educate other children. She generalized me. She stereotyped me. My mom told her off and we abruptly left. I didn’t understand why my mother was so upset at the time.
That’s when my white mother said some words to me that I’ll never forget: “Devon, I know you don’t understand what just happened, but l will explain. People are going to judge you based off of your skin color until the day you die. That’s the sad truth. There are people who are going to hate you. There are going to be people who want you dead. When it comes to the police, always comply even if you’re not in the wrong. That way you can make it safely back to me.” My white mother had to explain racism to her black child at 10 years old. 10 years old.
Fast forward two years. I am a seventh grader at Sabish Middle School. I am 12 years old and just made the track team. I was jogging, practicing my long distance running on Forest Avenue when two police officers illegally stopped me. My mom’s words echo through my head: always comply even if you’re not in the wrong. I am 12 years old and scared for my life. The two police officers start illegally searching me. They are patting me down. Sweat falls down my face. My heart rate starts to accelerate. My heavy breathing conquers the air. “Where did you steal this iPod from?” yells one of the cops. Stuttering, “Sir… I didn’t steal this iPod. My mom bought it for me… This is mine,” I frantically explain. “I am going to ask you again. Where did you steal this iPod from?” yelled the cop. My voice starts to crack, “Sir… I didn’t steal this iPod…This is mine. My name is even engraved on the back… Look it says Devon Snyder.” The two white police officers, in disbelief, let me go and tell me “it’s my lucky day” and to head home. Eyes watering, stomach turning, I ran as fast as I could back to my mom’s house. To my safety. To my sanctuary.
The year is 2011 and I am 17 years old at Fond du Lac High School. I just got accepted into the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some of my other white classmates started to feel some type of way because I got in, and they didn’t. In fact, one of my white classmates made a Facebook status about me saying that the only reason I got into UW Madison was because I’m Black and because of affirmative action. I got into UW Madison based off my own merit, hard work, and my own intelligence. I got in because of my GPA, my leadership skills, my letters of recommendation, and my demonstration and activism of trying to change my community. I didn’t get into UW Madison because I’m Black.
Growing up in Fond du Lac, WI people never let me forget that I was Black. Whether it was getting called a Nigger while walking down Main Street, or my friends reminding me that I am Black. During my four years at Fond du Lac High School, my white friends, my family members, and my best friends kept calling me “the whitest black kid they know.” This is by far the most offensive compliment that I can be given. This statement has an unintentional racist undertone. But what those people don’t understand is that, kidding or not, there’s subtext at play. You made that statement because of your own preconceived notion of what is and isn’t normal behavior for a “Black” person. But the truth is, that reflects poorly on you, not me. There are generalizations and stereotypes about the demeanor of different races due to the dramatizations of the media and ignorance. The bottom line is this: Intelligence is not measured by color, nor is success.
It’s September 2012, and I’m 19 years old in my sophomore year at University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am hosting a party with my roommate for his birthday on Breese Terrace. My roommate gets super drunk and out of control, and gets in my face. He keeps pushing me, hitting, and trying to provoke me. I am not giving in, when all of sudden he punches me, and I hit him back. He calls the police on me. I get booked and arrested. Even though my roommate hit me first, told the officers that he hit me first, and told the officers that he doesn’t want to press any charges against me, I still get arrested. Yes you read that correctly. The Madison Police Department arrested me, booked me, charged me for something that I never should have been charged with. I just became another black person in the system.
Fast forward eight months to May 2013. It’s 2am and I’m stumbling home from my buddy’s house on Regent street back to my place after Mifflin. I get jumped by four white guys. They begin shouting Nigger, hitting my body all over. I try to fight back. I try to cover my head. I black out. I wake up in the hospital. No charges were ever made, and no arrests ever happened.
It’s November 2016 and I am at a Badger football game. There is a white guy dressed as President Obama with a noose over his head. I am infuriated, and disgusted. My friend tells me that I shouldn’t be so sensitive, and that it’s freedom of speech. My University’s initial response was disheartening, and basically stated that it was freedom of speech also. I was outraged. I made my voice known to the Dean, Chancellor, and the local news stations. I made it known that there is a difference between our right to freedom of speech and hate speech. There is a difference between exercising your right and disguising that said right in the form of bigotry and hate.
Present. It’s February 2020 and I just bought the nicest car I ever owned in my life. I leave the dealership with such joy, and determination, when all of a sudden, I see flashing red and blue lights. I didn’t even own the car for five minutes and I get pulled over. My mom’s words echo in my head once again: comply even if you’re not in the wrong. My heart is racing. Am I going to die? Am I going to get arrested? Am I going to be the next Sandra Bland? Do I reach to get my license and registration, or is the cop going to think I’m reaching for a gun? My life flashes before my eyes. “Whose car is this? Do you know why I pulled you over today?” asked the police officer. “Sir this is my car. I don’t know why you pulled me over,” I frantically explain. “How did you afford this car? I pulled you over because you did a rolling stop, and your lights weren’t on,” explained the cop. My lights were on and I didn’t do a rolling stop. “Sir, I just picked this car up from the dealership. I was on my way back home,” I stutter. The cop smirked, and asked for my license and registration and went back to his car. What is going to happen to me? I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go to jail. I want my mom. The police officer comes back to my car with my license and registration, and tells me “it’s my lucky day” and to head back home.
This is what it means to be black in America. The never-ending timeline of racism. Racism is built in the DNA of America. And as long as we turn a blind eye to the pain of those suffering under its oppression, we will never escape those origins. White silence is violence. This is why we protest. This is why we say Black Lives Matter. This is why we don’t trust the police. This is why we’ve had enough.
“That’s not a chip on my shoulder. That’s your foot on my neck.”- Malcolm X