Let’s Talk About Race- My Conversation With Johnathan Perkins

Last Sunday night, Johnathan and I talked about growing up in an interracial family in Mississippi, going to high school in Lancaster County,  his experience at the University of Virginia and how we as white people need to be an active part of the work for racial justice.  I wanted him to be really honest with me, even if it was hard for me to hear.   I had no doubt he would rise to the occasion. One thing I have always loved about our friendship and my friendship with the Perkins is the honesty we have always had with each other.  We laugh a lot, talk about all life has brought us and almost always these days- discuss race.   Now that Johnathan’s story about his experience at the University of Virginia is public, I can share all those honest thoughts with you.   I know that these are not easy things to talk about.  It’s easy to disagree or be angry.   I just ask that you respect that this is his story and he is my friend.  Read my introduction here.  

And so I begin,

How personal do you want to get?

I’m an open book, that’s something that changed for me last week. So, I’ll get as personal as I can.

I’m curious what was it like growing up in Lancaster County? Were there many other black kids at school?

Moving to Lancaster from Jackson, MS was a pretty dramatic culture shock. I went from a school that was very racially diverse to Manheim Township in Lancaster, which I believe at the time had a 1 or 2% black student population.

Was that a hard transition? How were you received in Lancaster?

It was one of the most difficult times in my life, I’d say. I started 7th grade at Manheim Township Middle School. Not only was I one of the few minorities in the school, but I had a very heavy southern accent, so that made things more difficult.

I was bullied pretty mercilessly. My mom had to intervene with the Principal a couple of times. It was a pretty horrible couple of years. I don’t think I was aware how much race was playing a role in my differences with the student population until later.

Once I moved to the high school in 9th grade, I joined Marching Band, which provided me a default group of friends — friends I actually remain close with today. But, the racial differences became more pronounced in high school, largely because I got my driver’s license and started to have interactions with law enforcement. I can’t even count the number of times I had encounters with police in Lancaster.
Questioned for sitting in my car chatting with a friend or the girl I was dating in a parking lot. Stopped for driving in a gated community, questioned.
Stopped for silly violations like my turn signal not blinking at the proper speed or my light over my license plate being burned out. I now know that these minor stops are used as pretext for police. They pull over individuals for those minor offenses and then question them and examine the inside of their car looking for evidence of drugs or alcohol. I was never once ticketed in Lancaster.

How did you process all of this? Who did you talk to?

Well, my friends at Manheim Township were all white.

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Johnathan and his mom, Nancy
I would sometimes vent/complain to them, but it was more joking and tame frustrations.
My mom was a huge supporter during that adjustment time, generally. I didn’t really process a lot of the racial issues I experienced in Lancaster until the last 5 years.
I’m still processing a lot of it. I’m not really sure what that means, but I still think about my Lancaster experience often. I specifically remember being treated differently than my white classmates in school. whenever I would bring that to anyone’s attention, it was pretty wholly ignored.

How did your friends react to these things? Did they notice them too?

I think they recognized them when I pointed them out, but they didn’t really take them seriously. I think they probably thought I was exaggerating things. I was kind of a class clown, so I think a lot of my complaints were probably presented in a comedic fashion. Looking back, this was probably a method I utilized to try to make the topics palpable to my white friends — but a consequence of that was that they weren’t really taken seriously.

But as I think about it today, I don’t know how I could’ve expected them to take these things seriously. I’m speaking in generalizations here, but my friends probably quite literally had never thought about race issues in the real-world context.

One of the benefits white people receive from living in a society that supports them is that they do not have to think about their race. Their race is the “norm.” Anything outside of that is a foreign (perhaps theoretical) concept to them.

Alot of these people are still your good friends. Is this something you guys talk about now? Do you think they recognize you being treated differently now?

Johnathan with a group of his close friends from high school.
Yes, and yes. A person cannot possibly be friends with me today and not discuss race. We reminisce about Lancaster fairly often. I often bring up examples of the differences in treatment in conversations about race relations generally. But the benefit of their race remains: I doubt they think about race or the differences in treatment in Lancaster on a day-to-day basis. They have no reason to.

I am, far and away, known as someone who brings up and discusses race all the time. So I’m sure they think of these things when I’m around.

What would you say is something we could do for our black friends?

The first and most fundamental thing white people have to do if they desire to make a change to the racial environment in the U.S. is to initiate, foster, and maintain close, intimate relationships (romantic or otherwise) with black people.

Forming relationships with people of color–if those relationships are open and honest–will help white people see those injustices. Close relationships will create incentive to help. Think about your son or daughter (or their best friends). If the average person sees an injustice occurring at the expense of their son or daughter or someone else close to them, they’d be pretty inclined to step in and address things.

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Perkins family picture when they lived in Jackson, Mississippi.
My mom is a great example.   She’s a 65 year old white woman (I am bi-racial, half black half white) who lives her whole life seeking out racially-informed issues. In her workplace, at the grocery store, at her neighbor’s cookout…everywhere. She is known as the person who always talks about race. When my parents got married, they quickly realized that sending my mom to the bank instead of my father would literally end in a better result for the family’s financial situation. My mom would receive more and varied options, the bankers were kinder to her, they spent more time explaining things to her and–and I can’t prove this– I’m sure she probably received more favorable rates on loans, etc. because she was likely viewed as less of a financial risk than my father was.

Johnathan and his dad, Spencer
As child, I remember going to a restaurant as a family (black father, white mother, me, and my two bi-racial sisters). I remember being told there was a 15 minute wait. I remember waiting, watching other white families be seated, watching them be served, finish their food and leave, all before we were ever seated. I remember my father questioning why we hadn’t been seated and the hostess simply stated that they were working on a table for us. I remember waiting for what felt like hours–at this point, likely a principled decision my parents made–to simply be seated at a restaurant.

In high school in Lancaster, my first girlfriend was white. Her parents were vocally against our relationship–because I was black. They said as much.

Most people would say they aren’t racist. So, spending their lives seeking out racially informed issues seems like something that would never happen or even a thought that crossed their minds.

Right, so I think a big part of this is how we define racism.

I define racism as: benefitting from the racial systems America has in place and not doing as much as you possibly can to refuse those benefits–or use them to advance people of color. So pretty much all white people fall into that definition. America was founded on the notion of whiteness as supreme. That white supremacy–which I define as whiteness being considered the norm…or at worse superior–is still deeply engrained in American society. Every white person benefits from their whiteness. People of color can list dozens of problems they encounter (economic, educational, health-related, social, etc.) because of their race. Conversely, white people do not experience any type of hardship that can be attributed solely to their race. In other words, all the problems white people encounter are experienced by all of the other races as well…and often augmented because of our race.

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Johnathan and Nancy at a demonstration in Boston.
My mom quickly realized these injustices because she saw my dad experience them.   My mom saw her black children grow up and experience these injustices, so she couldn’t ignore them. When we would come to her with these issues, she’d know we weren’t exaggerating.  So, there’s the issue that white people will think that we are exaggerating about these issues. Think about it this way: why would so, so many black people be talking about these issues. No one likes a complainer/whiner. It’s actually sort of embarrassing to be asking white people to help us with this–because we can’t fix it ourselves. Think about incentives. We have no reason to be putting ourselves out there like this if it’s not really as bad as we’re saying. If we could fix things things ourselves, we would–but we talk to white people about them because, in reality, we need your help.

Can you tell me about a time your white friends did speak up for you?

At the University of Virginia. I had a pretty dramatic experience with law enforcement during my last semester in law school in Charlottesville. It turned into a pretty widely-covered saga. Throughout that experience, I had a few very loyal, very outspoken white friends who were right by my side, advocating for me.

You recently went public, with your friends and family, about your life altering experience 5 years ago at UVA.  Friday, it was published in the UVA newspaper.   Why did you decide to go public?

I had my own little brush with law enforcement while I was a student at UVA. In the context of some of the more extreme encounters black people have with law enforcement, mine wasn’t so bad. I was roughed up a little bit and basically embarrassed. But, I wanted to speak out then because I wanted my class mates to know that if you’re black, this type of things occurs all the time, all over the country, no matter how you dress or act. Once I spoke out, I was shut down pretty hard by the FBI via a highly-pressured recantation. My attorney advised me that I had to keep that a secret for a number of years because of threats of criminal prosecution. I’m speaking out about it now because 1. that statute of limitations period during which law enforcement would have to charge me has elapsed and 2. I can’t possibly keep it to myself any longer. When I spoke out originally, I was branded a liar and a race-baiter. I was shut down so quickly and forcefully that I’m sure law enforcement thought they’d never hear from me again. I’m sure that was the aim. So now, today, I feel as though I have the obligation to speak out in the face of that. I have to tell the public that even when you DO speak out against these types of injustices, that can just lead to additional and more serious injustices (as was the case with me, when the police ultimately involved the FBI). I’m going public now because I don’t want to let injustice prevail in my silence. I could keep quiet for the rest of my life and anyone who looks me up on the internet can see the stories about me being a liar and race-baiter and believe that the police officers investigating my complaint simply did their jobs. I could keep to myself and not risk any further harm to my reputation (or perhaps even my physical person). But doing so would be allowing them to silence me.   And I can’t do that.

Another big risk about this story reaching the public are the potential criminal implications. The news story consists of me accusing the FBI of acting inappropriately and pressuring me to recant a story of police misconduct. That’s a serious allegation. If the story gets enough attention and the FBI is put under some pressure, that could lead to a negative response from them. This is a larger, more serious example of what happened to me in 2011. I accused the local university police of behaving inappropriately by publishing a letter to the editor about their conduct. The consequences were pretty serious. I’m still living with them. Just Google me to see them.

What reaction are you expecting from this?

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The Perkins Family today- Nancy, Johnathan, April and Jubilee.   Johnathan’s dad, Spencer, passed away in January of 1998.
Well, as you know, I’ve already made a bit of an announcement of sorts to my personal Facebook community. The response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive–granted, those are all people who have already chosen to connect with me on social media. I think that the news story response will be mostly positive and supportive. There will always be individuals/groups who believe that I am a liar and this is just another way for me to get another 15 minutes, but I hope those individuals/groups are small.

I also really hope people do not walk away from reading my story thinking I am in any way anti-police or anti-law enforcement. The police risk their lives to perform a vital role in our society and it’s important that we acknowledge and respect them for that. The police do so much good in our society, but as with any institution with great power, police departments often choose quick and dishonest ways to end public relations concerns. I believe this is what the UVA Police did.

Honestly, as your friend, I feel protective.

I really appreciate that. And I feel it. I’m really happy that I made this announcement ahead of the news story. It’s really showing me that I have a small army of supporters behind me in the event that things to badly. I don’t actually know what the story is going to say; so they very well might take some sort of slant that is not favorable or that leads to people viewing this story in a negative light.

I’m glad you are sharing. I think it’s really important. I just know that your reputation was torn apart once and I don’t want anything bad to happen. But I know that’s just a risk. And while we all aren’t in your position, we need to be willing to take risks. I think that is one of the most difficult parts as a white person- you realize that by speaking out, you will sacrifice something. Often relationships.

I’m glad you said that. You’re right, that’s really important. I always ask people to use their “privilege” as some call it, for good. Step in in situations of injustice and make your voice heard. Use the benefits you receive simply by being white to advance people of color. In order to do that in a meaningful way, white people will have to risk some things too. You’ll actually know that you’re doing as much as you can to further the cause if you feel uncomfortable about it. Using your place in society to help advance/protect someone else will feel like you giving up a little bit of your own protection…and, in reality, that’s kind of what it is. That’s how you’ll know you’re doing as much as you can do — when you feel it affect you. And white participation in this is the only way we’ll ever be able to move forward. Black people only have the socio-political power to move the needle so far. When it comes to society/government, White people run the show. We need you.

I’m learning this the hard way- which is usually the best way to learn. Recently, I was shopping at a market stand and I witnessed a black woman, in this case using food stamps, being mistreated. She was there before me and she was clearly being ignored. It was so uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to do. So, I just waited my turn, bought my stuff, and left. When I got home, I told Drew what happened. I’ll never forget what he told me- he said “What use is a silent ally?” I like to say I’m an ally, but he was right, it means action, not just a social media status or good intention.

Yeah, I think that’s a great example. That’s a good instance where it would’ve been really important for you to use your position as a white woman to make sure the black woman was served/taken care of. Refused to be rung up until she was. Insisted that she was there before you and you aren’t in a rush and will wait until her needs were met. It would’ve probably taken the black woman and the grocery store staff by surprise. They may have even ended up being rude to you because of it (I’m sure they would have tried to rationalize why they weren’t helping her). This is a consequences you might’ve had to experience.
In this fight, allies who recognize what’s happening but then do nothing are not making a significant contribution to the movement. Action is required. Drew was right. (Off the record we took some time to both complain that we hate when Drew is right…)

I will say this, it has been my friendships with black people that have changed how I saw so many things. I’m learning and I want to be a real ally.

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Me, earlier this summer, attempting a selfie.   Johnathan says I’m terrible at this.
We need more than allies — we need people who actually serve more as accomplices. I saw that in a video/article somewhere, and I think that’s actually a good word for it.

It’s important for white people to recognize that this is a real problem. Black people didn’t all get together in a meeting somewhere and decide we were going to make all of this up or exaggerate. We don’t like complaining about these things, but we do because they persist.
I forget where I heard this, but a political activist was interviewed once by saying something to the effect of: If it’s not obvious that you love black people, then you aren’t doing it right.
You wouldn’t let someone you love suffer and be treated differently. If you truly loved that black woman in the grocery store, you would’ve insisted that she get the help she needed before you did. Saying that you see the problem is a big first step. but the problem persists unless actions intervene to change the trajectory.

I think of it as being on patrol with an eye out for racially-informed injustices. I use the term racially-informed injustices as opposed to “racially-motivated” because often, these little things aren’t overly motivated by race in an evil way…they’re simply shaded by the standardized racial hierarchies already in place in America. It’s like looking at things through a lens that’s been in place since the country’s inception.

I hate to say it, but, white people: we need you.

This all feels so much bigger than my understanding and experience. But honestly- as long as you (and all of us) are telling your truth, we can’t live by fear- like you said when you shared your story with your family and friends. You keep telling truth and I’ll try to do the same.

I think that’s the motto!

Read Johnathan’s full story in the Cavalier Daily here.  

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This picture is in here, just for me.   How does time move so quickly?   This is Will and Johnathan, almost ten years ago, on our porch of the duplex we shared on Pleasure Rd in Lancaster.
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3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Race- My Conversation With Johnathan Perkins

  1. Lisa my heart is full! Thanks so much for doing this story with Johnathan! You all are more than allies—for sure! Love Nancy

    On Sun, Oct 1, 2017 at 6:46 PM A Sky Full of Stories wrote:

    > Lisa posted: “Last Sunday night, Johnathan and I talked about growing up > in an interracial family in Mississippi, going to high school in Lancaster > County, his experience at the University of Virginia and how we as white > people need to be an active part of the work fo” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing, Lisa.

    I’m part of a group at church called Be the Bridge, which has at its goal racial reconciliation. Our homework includes reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.”

    I think the thing that is so hard for me is knowing what I can do. I want to do something to help and, although this has changed from when we first moved here, I don’t have a lot of contact with other races. It has to do with living in the suburbs.

    I’m glad you asked that question.

    We are trying to find a time to make a quick visit out to see you guys. It looks like one of the best dates for us is when you are going to be gone. I hope if we decide on that weekend that you and I can at least have a phone coffee date some time this month. Would you try to figure out a time when we could do that?

    Looking forward to seeing more of your writing,

    Pam

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

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