Former Naperville resident Brian Crooks pens a post about the experiences he’s had in Naperville and elsewhere that were overtly or unintentionally racist in an attempt to show what life is really like for people of color.
Editor’s note: Brian Crooks moved to Naperville when he was in the 5th grade; his parents still reside here. On Saturday, he wrote a Facebook post about his experiences being an African-American living in America that has since gone viral and has elicited hundreds of comments from people around the world. Because of its length, we’re publishing excerpts here. To read the entire post, go.
The first time I was acutely aware of my Blackness, I was probably 6 or 7 years old. Like, before then obviously I knew I was Black, but I hadn’t really had it put in my face like this until I was about 6 or 7. I used to go to daycare back then, and we went on a field trip to a water park one time. One of the other boys from the daycare came up to me and told me he was surprised I was going on the trip because his dad told him all colored people were afraid of the water since we sink to the bottom. He didn’t know he was being offensive. He was just curious why someone who would sink to the bottom would want to go to a water park.
In elementary school, I was in the gifted program. I’ve never been any good at math or science, but I was a really creative kid who loved history and telling stories. In third grade, the gifted program focused on the middle ages. I was in heaven. I loved learning about knights and castles and all that stuff. We had a group project to do sometime that year, where we had to give a short speech about something we’d learned during the year. All of the groups broke off to divvy up the work when my teacher came over to my group. Wouldn’t it be “easier” and more fun for me if my group did our presentation as a rap? I’m eight years old. I have no history writing any kind of music, much less a full 3 or 4 minutes of rap verses for me and my teammates. But, I tried. The other kids just expected it to be natural for me. They looked at me like, “What do you mean you don’t know how to rap?” We ended up just doing it as a regular presentation like everybody else, and afterward my teacher came up to me and said, “I thought you guys were going to rap? I was looking forward to MC Brian.” Again, she didn’t know that she was making a racially-insensitive statement. Why would she? It’s not like she’d had deep conversation about how Black people feel about their Blackness, or the way Black people internalized the way White people feel about our Blackness. Promoted Stories
From elementary school through middle school, I can’t remember how many times the White kids asked if they could touch my hair. I’m not kidding when I say it happened pretty much once a week at least. At first, it didn’t bother me. But eventually I felt like an exhibit in a petting zoo. And I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain to them that it was really weird that they kept asking to touch my hair all the time. See, I was a pretty shy kid. I was the only Black one, I was overweight, and I’d moved three times before I turned 10. So, rather than tell the White kids that no, they couldn’t rummage through my hair, I just said yes and sat there quietly while they marveled at how my hair felt.
My least favorite time of the year, every year, was February. Black History Month. Being the only Black kid in the class, I was the designated reader for the entire month. When it came time to read from our history books about slavery and the Triangle Trade Route, I was always the one who was chosen to read. When it came time to read about Jim Crow, it was my turn. George Washington Carver and the peanut? That sounds like a job for Brian. Booker T. Washington? Harriet Tubman? Surely Brian is the perfect choice for those passages. All the while, I felt the eyes of my fellow students on me. Again, I was already a shy kid. So, having an entire classroom of White kids stare at me while I explained what lynching and Black Codes were was pretty mortifying.
In 8th grade, I went to a friend’s house to jump on his trampoline. I didn’t know the kid all that well, but we had some mutual friends and at that age, if a kid has a trampoline, you’re going to jump on that trampoline. He had a couple of neighbors who were probably 6 or 7 year old girls. We’re jumping on the trampoline and the girls come out of their house and come over into his yard. Within about 5 minutes, they were laughing while saying “Get off our property, Black boy.” They were little, and they were laughing, so I don’t think they knew how ugly they were being. After all, they’d probably never had a Black kid in their one or two elementary school classes. But they’d clearly heard that phrase somewhere else before. I wasn’t even on their property; I was next door. But it’s fair to assume that at some point, someone in their house had said “Get off my property, Black boy.”
In high school, I was around more Black kids. Still not a lot, but more than zero, so that was nice. When I was fifteen, I got my first “real” girlfriend. I’d asked some girls out before, and some of them said yes, but when you’re 13 or 14 years old, what does “going out” even mean? So, my first “real” girlfriend was White. After all, I was living in an overwhelmingly White community and it’s not like I was a heartthrob, so I was in no position to tell a girl who liked me that I was only interested in dating a Black girl. I might’ve never had a girlfriend if that was the line I drew. We were a good couple. We got along well and had similar interests and stuff. Basically, what you’d like to have as a high school sophomore. Her parents were divorced, but her mom and stepdad liked me. Then, her biological father found out I was Black. A week later, she called me crying and said we had to break up. Her dad didn’t support her dating a Black person. So, my first heartbreak came as a direct result of racism.
When I was going through driver’s ed, my behind the wheel instructor was a football coach at one of the other Naperville high schools. He asked what kind of car I wanted one time, and I told him I was gonna get my dad’s Dodge Intrepid, but that I really liked my brother’s Mazda. He looked at me like I was nuts and said he figured I’d want an Impala so I could put some hydraulics on it and “hit dem switchezzzzz.” When we got back to my house at the end of my last behind the wheel session, he shook my hand and said it was a pleasure teaching me how to drive. Then, he said, “You’re a Black kid, but you’re pretty cool, you know? Like, you’re not like one of THOSE Black people, you know?”
In high school, I played football. There was a kid on the football team who I’d been friends with since middle school. Not, like, best friends or anything, but we ran in similar circles and we were certainly friendly with each other. When we were 16 or 17, he started referring to me as “The Whitest Black guy.” It really pissed me off. He knew it pissed me off. I guess because I used proper grammar, wore clothes that fit, and listened to metal in addition to hip hop, it made me “White.” Turns out, to be “authentically Black” means being a caricature of what a Black person should be, according to this suburban White kid.
I got pulled over a lot in high school. Like, a lot a lot. By this point, I was no longer driving the Dodge. I had a Mazda of my own. It was flashy and loud, but this was 2002 and everybody with a Japanese car was doing a Vin Diesel impression, so it’s not like mine stood out that much more than anyone else’s. I spent a ton of money on my car and was especially aware of its appearance. You can understand, then, why it was weird that I was routinely pulled over for a busted taillight. After all, that’s the kind of thing I would’ve noticed and gotten fixed, especially if that taillight tended to burn out once a week or so. My parents had told me how to act when pulled over by the police, so of course I was all “Yes sir, no sir” every time it happened. That didn’t stop them from asking me to step out of the car so they could pat me down or search for drugs, though. I didn’t have a drop of alcohol until I was 21, but by that point I was an expert at breathalyzers and field sobriety tests. On occasion, the officer was polite. But usually, they walked up with their hand on their gun and talked to me like I’d been found guilty of a grisly homicide earlier in the day. A handful of times, they’d tell me to turn off the car, drop the keys out the window, and keep my hands outside the vehicle before even approaching.
I went to the University of Iowa, which is a very White campus in a very White state. It’s funny, because most of the people I met there who came from small-town Iowa were really excited to finally meet a Black person. And it wasn’t like they wanted me to be a mascot; they genuinely wanted a Black friend so they could learn about Black people and stuff. It was nice. On the other hand, if I was in a bar and talking to a girl they didn’t think I should be talking to, or in their drunken state they bumped into sober me, you’d be surprised to see how quickly some of these guys will call a complete stranger a nigger.
Once, when I came home from college, I was pulled over less than a block from my parents’ house. It was late, probably about midnight or so, but I hadn’t been drinking and it was winter so I wasn’t speeding because it had snowed that day. The officer stepped out of his car with his gun drawn. He told me to drop the keys out the window, then exit the car with my hands up and step back toward him. I knew he was wrong, but I wasn’t about to be shot to death down the street from my parents’ house because my failure to immediately comply was interpreted as me plotting to murder that officer. So yeah, I stepped out and backed up toward the officer. He hand cuffed me and refused to tell me why I had been pulled over, or why I had been asked to exit my vehicle. Only when I was sitting in the back of the police car did he tell me that there had been reports of gang activity in the area and that a car fitting my car’s description with a driver fitting my description had recently been involved in said gang activity. Gang activity. In south Naperville. Committed by a Black male driving a bright blue Mazda MX-6 with a gaudy blue and white interior. Yeah, alright. He was very short in asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood so late at night. I explained that my parents lived at that house with the glass backboard over there. He didn’t believe me. He took me back out of the car and put me face down on the hood of the police car to frisk me. I’d already been searched once before he put me in the car. Then, he spent about 15 minutes searching my car while I stood hand cuffed in the cold. My ID had my parents’ address on it, but he still didn’t think I lived there. I could tell he wanted to accuse me of having a fake ID. About a half hour after being pulled over, when he found nothing on me, nothing in my car, and nothing on my record, he reluctantly let me go. He didn’t even say sorry, or explain that it was his mistake; he must’ve been looking for another Black man in a bright blue Mazda MX-6 who was a gang leader in south Naperville. He sat in the street until I drove to my parents’ house, opened the garage door, drove inside, and then closed the garage door.