You’ve seen me before. I boarded your bus last week, in the afternoon.
I was the one wearing round black headphones around my neck like a DJ; I was the one in the slouchy red shorts and the too-large white Nike tennis shoes. I was the black one. My two friends and I crowded into the back of the bus, laughing, loud, because school had ended for the day and we are fourteen and it was only 3 p.m. You glanced back at me, annoyed, because you wanted to read the day’s headlines about Charlottesville in peace, and I was singing Beyonce in falsetto, my two friends in hysterics.
When the white man, age fifty-one, shouted from his seat in front of you, “Shut up, N____!” you bowed your head.
When my friends shouted back to defend me, when the white man lunged for us, when the white man threw his first punch at my black face, you closed your eyes and faced forward.
You’ve talked to me before. Last night in Starbucks, you sat waiting for a friend to meet you for mochas and an hour or two of catching up, and you noticed me at the next table bent over a thick biology textbook, a pen in my hand. Maybe ordinarily you would not have interrupted me, but I looked so young and earnest, and — well — I had brown skin and long glossy black hair. As a student, I surprised you. You wondered if I had been adopted.
“What are you studying?” you wanted to know, though the front cover of my textbook told you clearly.
“I’m in the pre-med program at UCD,” I told you, and then I bowed my head to return to mitosis and osmosis.
“Where are you from?”
“Here,” I said, because I have lived in Denver since my parents brought me here at age five. We waded across the slow-moving Rio Grande on a night so dark I could not see my mother, though I held her hand tightly. My father lifted me up and over a fence that tore at my clothes, and for long minutes I stood in Los Estados Unidos all alone while he helped my mother, who was pregnant with my baby brother. The crickets sounded the same in America as they had in Mexico, and the dusty road my family walked into the outskirts of El Paso, where my uncle waited for us, could have been a road anywhere, too.
“But where are you really from?”
I could have told you I have DACA status, that I emerged from the shadows with hope that I could study thick textbooks in coffee shops like any other American. I could have pointed to today’s headline about Trump ending the DACA program; I could have told you that, if I get deported to Mexico, I will walk into a country I do not know except in dreams and into a language I speak, pero mis sueños son en ingles.
Instead, I said, “I’m from here,” and I turned back to my studying.
You’ve needed my help before. At Chicago O’Hare one morning last month, you passed me pulling a wheeled black carry-on behind you, your turquoise faux leather purse slung across your chest. You looked weary: dark circles sagged beneath your eyes, you walked slowly, your mouth hung slack. I stood beside my duffle reading the day’s headlines in The Chicago Tribune.
“Excuse me, sir,” you said, “I don’t mean to bother you. Do you know if there’s a place to get breakfast nearby?”
I folded my newspaper under one arm and surveyed the area. I was on my way home to Iowa from Afghanistan after two years of duty. The moment I’d landed in New York several hours before, I had rushed to the first McDonalds I could find to buy myself a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, hash browns, black coffee. Every bite tasted as perfectly greasy and salty as I had remembered. Watching me, people grinned knowingly. The tall slender young man in Army fatigues wolfing down McDonalds deserved this real American food. An old white-haired woman tucked a ten-dollar bill into my pocket. “Thank you for serving us, son,” she said. I used the ten dollars to buy another breakfast.
Now you looked at me with the same mix of respect and awe, the same belief that of all the people in this airport, I was trustworthy because I wore a U.S. Army uniform.
I caught sight of a Caribou Coffee stand. “I’ll walk you there,” I said, and I offered you my arm, because young men in uniform do that for older women. You took it gratefully, leaning on it. You told me as we walked that your mother had just died, that you were so tired.
Would you have leaned on my arm if you had known you leaned on the arm of a man born into a body identified as female? Would you have trusted me so much if you had known that I served for two years in Afghanistan praying my commander would keep my secret for me? Today’s headlines told me Trump will ban transgender soldiers from the military. I am so tired.
“Thank you, young man,” you said in front of Caribou Coffee. I bowed my head to you, and then I turned on my heel. My mother waited in Cedar Rapids to embrace her son.
You’ve watched me on TV before. It was late at night, and you turned on the TV because you couldn’t sleep, and the BBC was running a documentary on North Korea. You decided to watch because your grandfather fought in Korea in the 1950s, and you realized you knew nothing at all about that war. You learned that your grandfather and the other U.S. troops fought to defend South Korea from the Soviet-supported North Korea, that North Korea’s invasion was the first official action of the Cold War. You learned that the UN forces almost lost. You learned that the fighting ended with an armistice and the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but that technically the two sides are still at war. You wished you had asked your grandfather more questions.
The documentary includes shaky footage of people interviewed on the South Korean side of the DMZ. There I am: a young man with short, well-groomed black hair, a white button-down shirt open at the collar, a shy smile. I surprise you. I speak English well, and I look directly into the camera, telling the BBC reporter that the world must not forget Korea. I do not say “South Korea.” My grandmother and father live in the north still, I say. My great-grandfather fought in the Fatherland Liberation War in the 1950s, I say.
On the bottom of the screen, the day’s headlines scrolled. North Korea has just successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, and the UN is discussing strict sanctions. Trump says he will not rule out a military response. You paused the documentary and stared at a photograph of the DMZ: sky blue buildings, green grass, razor wire looping along a fence edge, a soldier standing guard over a rectangle of empty stone.
Briefly, you wonder if your grandfather ever looked into the eyes of my great-grandfather.
Then you turn off the TV.
I know you. You do not have to read the day’s headlines. You can camp for an entire weekend in the woods, blissfully free from any notifications, and return home rejuvenated. You can do this because they do not attack you or your children on public buses or in the street because of your skin color — you are white. You can avoid the day’s headlines because they do not threaten to deport you to the country in which you were born — your ancestors safely arrived in America, legally or illegally, one hundred and fifty years ago. You can ignore the news because they do not brandish pitchforks outside your door, crying “Monster!” — in your skirts, you safely live as the sex into which you were born. You can refuse to hear today’s latest announcements because they do not cavalierly suggest the annihilation of your homeland — you live in the United States.
And so you imagine you can close your eyes, drink your Starbucks mocha, turn off your phone and the TV and the computer. You imagine today’s headlines, terrible as they are, do not apply to you.
But you’ve seen me. You’ve talked to me. You’ve needed my help. You’ve watched me on TV. And someday, they will come for you.
And in that moment, you will pray that someone else has paid attention, that someone else is brave enough to speak — to act — to stand — for you.
Here’s what you can do today:
- read the newspaper, every day (especially papers like The Guardian, which give an outside-U.S. perspective)
- donate to an immigrant rights group to support DACA students (I donate to Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition)
- donate to the ACLU, LambdaLegal, Human Rights Campaign, and other organizations that support the rights of all people, including transgender people who wish to serve in the military
- oppose ANY form of racism and ANY organization that supports or spreads the ideas of white supremacy
- call your senator and insist that the U.S. work with the UN on North Korea through careful diplomacy, not military action
- refuse to be silent — Trump’s support (even passive) of white supremacists, his discontinuation of DACA, his ban on transgender people in the military, his aggressive stance on North Korea, and many, many other of his actions are wrong — and will hurt us all