It was 2008. I lived in Gainesville, Florida. One afternoon, four guys dressed mostly in leather walked into the pizza joint where I worked. The weather was hot; definitely not leather weather.
I said hello. They said nothing. I tried to ask for their order, but their response was: “No, you can’t serve us.” It was the polite way of saying, “a white person can serve us, but not a Black person.” I had heard this before when I had worked at Linens ‘n Things. It’s a chain people may not know, but it was like the Blockbuster of retail. At the time, during the height of the Great Recession, they were a victim of the crumbling economy in the way that Radio Shack was. So many businesses were on the chopping block that it was a miracle my job at the pizza restaurant still existed.
While working at Linens ‘n Things, I’d heard “you can’t serve me,” from an old white guy dressed as if he’d just stepped off the set of Gone With the Wind. So, I knew the deal when these guys said it.
But, ever the professional, I stuffed my anger, and my tears, somewhere down inside. I went and told the pizza shop boss what they had said, but before I did, I saw the shamrock tattoo these guys had on their shoulders. I didn’t learn until later what this tattoo meant. Now I know it represents the Aryan Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi prison gang.
My boss was a short, tough white woman I’d once seen pop a drunk heckler outside the restaurant and knock him down onto the sidewalk. She told these guys: “If he can’t serve you, we won’t serve you.” I imagine they were awfully hungry, because they agreed to these terms.
I served them their food and then three of them left. One remained, and said to me: “How about a vanilla milkshake?”
“Umm…yeah, okay,” I said, my voice quite chipper. I was 22 and had a positive outlook, I thought the best of people back then.
I gave him the shake and he told me to sit. I did. And we talked. Yes, he was a member of a notorious hate group, he told me. He was more hardcore than a Klansman. No, he didn’t like Blacks. But on the other hand, he loved professional football which, he explained, was mostly Black dudes these days. I liked football, as well. I also liked beer, and so did he. And, it turned out, we both liked art.
The conversation led me to a realization: this man was a lot like me, the only difference was that he hated me. What a paradox. His name was Daniel and we connected on some level. We were linked by our love of football and our love of beer and art. It sounds simple. But that’s all friendship should take.
“How did this happen, man?” I said to Daniel one time when he came around the restaurant, during a lull in the business day. “When did you start hating Black people?”
“It’s how I was raised,” he said nonchalantly while munching on a pepperoni slice. “But I just hate how they act. What they look like. I hate that they breathe.” His words hurt. Just to know my very existence was seen as a problem to some people. “So why’d you talk with me? What was it?”
Daniel blinked a few times, his eyes avoided mine for a second. He scratched his chin. “Because you’re not like the others. You’re one of the good ones. Besides that, I’ve never known another Black to be cool like that. They’re violent. They lose their s***. You served us, despite it all. You’re a good man.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. I felt like an Uncle Tom. Maybe I was.
I thought about it. Why had I even served those guys? Ever since I’d moved to Florida, I’d been treated like trash by white people. I’d had things thrown at me while I walked down the street by people speeding away in their cars. I’d often get called something derogatory when leaving my apartment or I’d receive a slur when returning. Was I so desperate to finally be accepted by whites that I’d become friends with whomever I could find, even a white supremacist?
Daniel and I hung out more and more in the following months. I’d meet him at the movies. We’d eat at Krystal’s restaurant, in my opinion a very inferior version of White Castle. Daniel didn’t live in Gainesville, but he never told me where he did live. He always wore shirts that covered his racist tattoos. I tried, almost pleading, to change his mind about my people. But something in the news would always sway his opinion toward hate again.
“Look at this n*****,” he said once, pointing to an article in the local paper about a Black guy who had murdered a couple of people during a robbery. I flinched at the word. But I smiled, because I tricked myself into believing he wasn’t talking about me. Just people like me. After a while, the word no longer fazed me. Not when he said it, at least.
Then, one day he just stopped coming around. I called his phone after a week of not seeing him. It was switched off. Patiently, I waited. Day after day, he didn’t show. I assumed he had died. It made me sad.
But another part of me felt relief. Relief that I no longer had to pretend I didn’t identify with other Black people; the Black people he saw as “bad.” Relief because, my parents once marched against the injustices and violence he would have incited. He’d only been a friend in the loosest sense, but when you hate yourself so much, when you crave acceptance more than you crave respect, you’ll make a friend wherever you can.
I’m 13 years older now. Wiser. I respect myself and my self-esteem is in a much better place than it was back then. Working that hard just to be friends with a neo-Nazi? No. I don’t have the patience, and I respect myself too much to be around someone who respects me that little.
Too many of us think that being nice is all it takes. They think that being racist is something only mean people do. Robin DiAngelo, a white sociologist, suggests that white people equate niceness with goodness. But I knew a guy who was nice, and a racist.
I eventually left Florida in 2010. But since, I have run into white supremacists online many times. During these interactions, I often see comments from others, saying things like, “you’re looking for racism where there is none!” I don’t have to search for racism. It finds me. When I start a conversation about gummy bears in a comment section and somehow it turns into “hail Hitler,” I learn rather fast that racists don’t care what the context of the conversation is.
Racism is alive. And while I can mostly ignore the bigots these days—I’ve been taunted and teased so much throughout my lifetime because of the skin I’m in—there are still many people out there who need to know it’s okay to be Black. And I will continue striving, through my writing and my social media, to get that message across.
I wholeheartedly reject white supremacists and what they represent, but Daniel’s friendship taught me a lesson: people too often find the differences instead of the similarities. Humans, we love to hate each other. None of us is better. None of us is lesser. All of us are human. You would think that after so many years on this earth, we’d have figured it out by now.
Alex Miller has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Independent, and is also featured in the anthologies “The Byline Bible” and “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook.” You can follow him on Twitter @oneheart1city
The views in this article are the writer’s own.