Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.I have written a tremendous number of words on this site about racism and its resiliency in today's America. Though I don't purport to have all of the answers or even a few of the complicated solutions, I believe that my perspective is both unique and valuable. I am 26 years old, and I'm white. I grew up in a small South Carolina town where required integration was met with creative redistricting, creating de-facto segregation with a primarily "white" high school and a primarily "black" high school. That practice didn't abate until 1995, when our town formed Darlington High School, a mix of the two that caused many parents to pull their kids out of their respective schools to put them in schools named after Robert E. Lee, James F. Byrnes, and the like.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I grew up and developed intimate relationships with racists of all stripes. Some made their racism clear, using the n-word with impunity. Others practiced a more socially acceptable form of racism, pepped with words like "colored" and "darkening." I heard all of the jokes, and I have yet to experience a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that did not include one of my friends thanking James Earl Ray for his work.
Over the last few years, I've done some soul searching on what powered the mindsets of the people I grew up with. What I've discovered is that there are no easy answers. These people and their nefarious mindsets have developed as a the result of environmental factors like poor parenting. They are victims of their own inability to Google, and their mindsets reflect a woefully poor understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it. They plod along through life with no understanding of how their hatred effects others. Like track stars who don't know that they're supposed to jump over the hurdles, they run roughshod over the emotions of fellow human beings, and when called on it, these racists find refuge by accusing others of playing the race card.
What I've realized, as well, is that it is, at best, a coin flip whether a person makes it out of a racist upbringing without adopting a bigoted mentality. It's just way easier to adopt the proclivities of the authority figures around you when the alternative requires hard work. From a very young age, I have been physically bothered by racism. I'd cry tears of anger at the mention of the n-word as a 12-year old, and I never had a problem standing up to racism where it reared its head.
How did I come to reject the patent racism that infected many of the people who grew up around me? I'm by no means a super person on this issue. It's not by some accident or some immutable character strength that I made it out untainted. Instead, it was because of the bridge built by one extraordinary relationship with one pair of twins. Reflecting on this relationship, it has become clear to me that respect for different kinds of human beings begins with an honest appreciation for the human qualities of individuals. And that appreciation is best gained through exposure to life-changing relationships.
I was ten years old in 1997. It was some time in January, and I was invited to a honorary dinner for the town's two state championship football participants. My team from the Small Fry Division had made it all the way to the state championship, knocking off Marion, Marlboro County, and Orangeburg on the way. We lost to Rock Hill by one touchdown, undone by the only Small Fry team that could regularly complete passes.
That dinner also honored the Darlington High School Falcons, who lost to Berkley High School in a hard-fought game. That Darlington team featured a number of players who would go on to play division I college football, including future South Carolina receiver Brian Scott. He had set the state record for receptions, and he was predictably the most popular player to the many 10-year olds there. I was seated next to the team's other receiver, though. Travis Burns played on the other side of Brian Scott, and he wound up with the more productive professional career. Travis and his twin brother Tracy settled on a small division I school, and Travis later amassed more than 3,000 yards in one season for the Arena Football League's Norfolk Nighthawks.
I always had a certain appreciation for Travis on the field, and I thought he didn't get enough attention because the admittedly spectacular Scott played the same position. I also have a long history as a contrarian, and when other kids flocked to the big star, I wanted to do something different. I'm not sure whether the Burns twins really liked me or whether they just enjoyed the attention, but they made me feel special that night. They asked about my experiences on the field and in school, and I proudly told Tracy that I had kept his sweat band from a game earlier that year.
The foundation of our extraordinary relationship was laid that night, but it grew partly because of a lie. Travis was also a star basketball player, and played point guard for the Falcons. He told me I should come watch one of their games, and I told my grandmother that Travis had told me I could sit behind the bench. As it turned out, my grandmother worked with his mother, and doubting the legitimacy of the story, my grandmother asked his mother whether it could be true. His mother assured my grandmother that if Travis had said it, then it must be true. When I went to the game the next Friday, Travis left pre-game warmups when I came into the arena. He had arranged for me to be a waterboy, and with that, I got my seat behind the bench. A real thrill for a 10-year old kid, I traveled to all of the team's games, and I was there through wins and a playoff flameout at the hands of North Charleston High School.
Later that year, when Travis was set to graduate, we went out to a meal. I rode with him, and he had placed a black box on the dashboard. He motioned for me to open it, and when I did, I saw an incredible gift. The Darlington High School football players had received commemorative watches for their trip to the championship game, and the Burns brothers decided to give me one of their two watches. I looked at the watch - black band with a silver face and a Darlington helmet inside - and said, "Hey, that's pretty cool." I had no idea at the time that it was mine, but Travis let me know that he and his brother wanted me to have it. I wouldn't truly appreciate this until four years later when I won a state championship of my own. I valued my own state championship ring immensely, because it represented hundreds of hours of hard work. That my heroes - at age 18 no less - were willing to share with me that sort of keepsake was remarkable at the time and it's special even today.
As time went on, my relationship with the Burns brothers grew. In its infancy, the relationship involved Travis coming to my little league games and me giving him a call every so often. I went to watch him play in college, and I followed his box scores every Sunday. Later I saw him play in the arena leagues, and I've got a football from one of his touchdowns. Travis sent graduation gifts and we would share the occasional conversation.
I struggled for many years to describe my relationship with Travis to people on the outside. What's the right word here? Hero? Mentor? Friend? Big brother? In reality, it has become all of those things, and I regularly describe him as "outside of my father, the best man I know."
At a very young age, we forged an improbable and extraordinary relationship that remains today. I check on the Burns twins often, and I try to see them when I can. A couple of teenage black men befriending a young white kid in a part of the world where racial harmony isn't exactly commonplace. At the time, I didn't think about race, and I'm sure they didn't either. I was too young for that kind of stuff, and I looked up to them for their talents. I appreciated them for their willingness to spend time with the childhood version of me. It wasn't until later when my relationships with Travis and Tracy helped me frame racial issues. While many of my friends saw the "black community" as a homogenous group fit for collective ridicule, I was able to see those people as individuals. When I heard racially-charged jokes, I thought about my friends, and about how good they had been to me. Those life-altering relationships served as the antidote to the blatant racism that I was exposed to during those formative years.
Now that I've grown up, I've experienced similar phenomena with other groups of people. Forging relationship with people of different religions and sexual orientations has forced me to paint people not with the broad brush often applied to groups. In the end, people are just people. They're due respect, and they are capable of extraordinary things. I am largely indebted to Travis and Tracy Burns for helping me bridge the most important gap, and for continuing to engage in an extraordinary and meaningful relationship.