My name is Billy Hightower. If you’re reading this — it is likely that I am your “Black friend.”
I’ve thought a lot about this. I’ve been asked questions and been expected to answer a lot of friends. So I wanted to put something together to share some of my experiences of being Black in America.
I come from a family of proud Black men and women. My grandmother, Doris Anderson, was an exceptional Black woman. The valedictorian of her high school class at 16 — told she couldn’t attend “White college” because all of the colored spots were filled.
My father, my namesake Billy Hightower, is an exceptional Black man. A man who participated in the Million Man March in 1995. I distinctly remember that night, because I had a nightmare that he wouldn’t come back. It is a fear then that still lingers now, 25 years later. A fear that seemingly can’t be fixed and won’t go away.
Racism is a part of every Black man’s life in America from the day they are born. We all experience it, but what you don’t forget is your first memory of it. For me, that was at 7 years old.
I grew up living on the same street as a boy named Jimmy. He and I would ride bikes, talk about comics, and play with bugs. He would come to my house for lunch during the summer. Jimmy and I were friends. He was also, for what it’s worth, Asian-American.
So perhaps it was just childhood naivety — or maybe it was our friendship — but I never questioned why Jimmy would frequently come to my house for those summer lunches, but I was never invited back to his house. It was weird, but I didn’t think anything of it. That’s just the way things were.
So imagine my surprise when, during one of those early summers, Jimmy rode his bike to my house and said “Billy. My parents said I can’t play with you anymore.” Confused, I asked him “Why?” That’s when it hit.
“Well, they said it was because you are Black.” And that was it. He rode back home, to the house I was never invited into.
A decade would pass. Jimmy would live on that same street with me the entire time. He’d continue to ride his bike past my house. He’d look away when him and his parents drove by. He’d never reach out. We wouldn’t be friends. We’d never speak again.
After that moment, I knew. I would begin to understand that racism exists and growing up Black in America would have its own set of challenges that my parents would need to prepare me for.
My parents instilled in me hard work, conviction, and the reality that is presented to all Black children. They taught me that I needed to work twice as hard — and be twice as smart — as the White Kids to have the same opportunity. That’s just life.
It’s 5th grade. I’m on the competitive math team. I’m a straight-A student. An exceptional student. My White math teacher schedules a parent-teacher conference. She tells my mom I need to be tested for a learning disability. “He doesn’t pay attention in class,” she says.
This part was true. I didn’t pay attention in class…because I would complete our assignment for the week on Monday.
The White kids that completed their work early were moved to talented and gifted courses. My teacher suggested they put me on Ritalin. That’s just life.
You learn different rules for different reasons.
Don’t jaywalk. Don’t roll through stop signs. Don’t let your car registration expire. Don’t take that exit. Don’t drive through that neighborhood.
The sole purpose of these being to survive. To minimize interaction with the police. My family, like all Black families, taught me these fast and early.
Before I could even drive, they taught me what to do when I was inevitably pulled over by the police: turn down the radio, put your hands on the dash, end every sentence with sir, and ask the police officer before you make any movements to minimize the risk that they shoot and kill you. And EVEN if you do everything correctly. That’s not a guarantee. But you give yourself a chance.
It’s 2012. I’m a student at Southern Methodist University.
I am driving my friend Liz home. Her apartment is a block off-campus. In that short stretch of road I get pulled over by Dallas PD on the corner of Mockingbird and Hillcrest. They call it a “felony traffic stop.”
Police vehicles block the intersection. 8 officers draw their weapons over their car doors.
“Get out of the car and get on the ground!”
I’m driving my car that is registered with the university, with an SMU logo on the trunk. They don’t think anything of it. Maybe they just don’t care. They pull out their guns and lay me on the ground, immediately handcuffing the White girl in my car, and refusing my request to be handcuffed.
I was under the impression that police couldn’t shoot a handcuffed person in Dallas so that was my first and only ask.
Instinctively, I adopt the protocol my parents have taught me.
“Give us your Identification” says the officer. “Officer, may I take my right hand and move it to my right thigh?”
“Just grab your ID.”
“Officer, I’m taking my right hand and moving it into my right pocket. Do I have your permission?”
“Just grab your ID.”
“Officer, I’m taking the Wallet from my right pocket and lifting it out of my pocket. Do I have your permission?”
“Just grab your ID.”
They searched my car and belongings as I laid there flat on the ground with my arms to my sides. Weapons drawn after showing both my SMU and Texas ID.
They say I meet the description of their suspect: Black man driving an SUV.
I ask if they could escort me to drop her off and back to my dorm, a simple request considering it was a four block radius. They say no. “Hurry up and get home.”
I ask — “Is there a chance I could go through this experience again driving home?” They say “Yes.” But they’ll try to get something out via the radio.
That’s just life. Eight Police Officers, weapons drawn, on the campus I’m still paying student loans on today.
I was used to cops pulling me over in Highland Park and asking, “Where are you going?” Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am. But this time was different.
It was different from the time, when as a Sigma Phi Epsilon, my “Brothers” at Texas A&M told me my White fraternity brothers were welcome in their house, but I wasn’t.
It was different than growing up playing hide-and-seek in a White neighborhood, making sure to never team-up with my two Hispanic friends so that we didn’t look like “the three Blacks/Hispanics” hiding in the bushes. Another rule to protect us from having the neighbors call the police on us. Another way to survive.
It was different from the times I travel in a hoodie on open seating airlines because I know I’m less likely to have someone sit next to me.
It was different from the times I wear the SMU Logo as I jog through my predominantly White neighborhood to look less threatening to my neighbors.
But, if you think about it, It’s not so different from the situations Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, my best friend’s friend Botham Jean, and countless others found themselves in. Because I’m no different than them. I’m no exception.
Our stories just ended differently.
Being an “exception” should not be a condition of acceptance and right to live to our White cohorts. Having to be exceptional as a requirement to having civil opportunities and liberties, is completely unreasonable and unsustainable. Black kids are always one misstep from being a statistic, and this is not a standard to hold someone to because human beings aren’t infallible. Being exceptional doesn’t make you immune to racism or “one of the good ones.”
And that’s just life.
I wrote something I pinned as a tweet a few years ago. I said: My parents never taught me to call the police, I’ve never called the police, and I’ll probably never teach my children to call the police. This is America.
And that remains true. This IS America. But it doesn’t have to be. Together, we can help write a better story for the next Black girl or boy out there. We can help eliminate that fear in their hearts that they may never see their parents again — deem those “rules” and protocols they’re taught in order to survive obsolete.
I truly believe we can. I hope you do, too. So use your power. Use your resources. And use your voice to support the many organizations that are striving to make the change for Black Lives. And together we can build the America Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of 57 years ago.
The author would like to thank Darrius Shaw and Atomic Productions for writing and editing help.