A week before Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a strange thing happened to me, a thirty-one-year-old white man. Without provocation or any interaction at all, a man punched me right in the face while I was out jogging.
It took me a few seconds to figure out what had just happened. Why was this man screaming and spitting at me, in broad daylight on a Brooklyn sidewalk? Why was there blood pouring out of my nose and down my face?
Later, cops from the NYPD's 88th precinct examined my swollen eye. Was it second or third degree assault? They weren't sure at first. Third degree, it turned out, by dint of the broken skin on my cheekbone.
The police wanted to know why the man had hit me. I didn't know. Did I remember ever seeing him before? No. Had he tried to take my wallet or anything of value on my person? No. What had he said to me before he attacked? Nothing. Did I have any idea why he might have hit me? The only thing I could think of was that he looked like he was a street person. Maybe he hoped to provoke a scuffle with me and to somehow get some money out of me. My speculation sounded implausible to me even as I voiced it.
Finally, they asked me what the man who attacked me looked like and I told them what I'd seen. "It was a black man," I said. "A black man did this to me."
I gave a full description, of course. But somehow it wasn't his salt and pepper hair I described first. Or his height, or his weight, or what he was wearing, or that he looked to be in his mid-forties. Or even the one detail I remember so vividly: his gapped teeth as he sneered at me while I tried to make sense of what had just happened. In my shaken state, I seized on skin color as the most distinguishing feature of the man who hit just me.
I was nervous and jittery in those first few days after the incident - days that were among Trayvon Martin's last on earth. I would be jogging again and see a black man in the distance or rounding a corner coming towards me. My fists would clench, adrenaline would pump through my system, my heart would pound.
In fact, I would be ready to defend myself against men who had coal black skin, even though the person who hit me was colored like milk chocolate. I would steel myself against men who stood a head taller, or were ten years older. That these black men looked nothing like my assailant didn't seem to matter to my flight-or-fight response, just that they were black, too. Seconds later, I would recognize that I was stereotyping. The adrenaline would subside quickly, replaced by a wash of hot shame.
The first published picture of George Zimmerman was unflattering - in fact, the news media would later be criticized for running the shot incessantly in the days after the shooting. Remember the shaved head, the pudgy cheeks, the stony eyes, and the orange polo shirt that looked suspiciously close to a prison jumpsuit? So that's what a racist looked like. It was comforting to cluck our tongues and tell ourselves we had nothing in common with that jowly face.
There was only a week in between my encounter and Trayvon Martin's death. Imagine: seventeen-year-old Trayvon walking down the Brooklyn sidewalk, hands jammed deep into the pockets of his grey hoodie. I know I would have felt afraid.
We still learn to fear black men in this country. It's a subtler lesson than it used to be but it is still present, in our movies, in our shows, in our textbooks somehow. Before I had been attacked, I had thought myself immune. I helped little old black ladies tote their groceries up the subway stairs. I voted for Obama. Race wasn't an issue for me, I thought.
Four months after the shooting, I asked a woman to marry me. When people ask me what my fiancee is like, I tell them what I see. She's warm, intelligent, hard-working and beautiful. If we keep talking about her, sometimes I mention that she's black.
Imagine: in fifteen or twenty years, I might have a vulnerable, brown-skinned teenager of my own. I don't want to teach that child the lessons that dark-skinned people have to teach their kids -- never startle a cop, never linger in a store without cause. People will see race where they shouldn't.
I never did find out why the man on the street punched me. Maybe he was just a crazy with no reason at all. New York City has a lot of those, of all colors.