It was a warm Los Angeles evening. (Aren’t they all?)
We were at Pico and La Brea, grabbing dinner at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, a late night LA institution and hands-down one of my favorite restaurants of all time. We sat at a little table by the window under the pink glow of a single strip of neon that wound its way around the entire dining room. A woman named “Big Mama” came over to take our order.
I got my usual, the Carol C. Special: one succulent chicken breast (the menu’s words, not mine) and one waffle. Oh, and a side of collard greens and one Eclipse, their famous mix of lemonade, orange juice, and fruit punch. Big Mama left, and we started to talk.
“We” were me and the chaplain advisor for Saved by Grace, the University of Southern California Gospel Choir. We’d come that night with a bunch of choir folks, which we often did after rehearsals or concerts or just because.
This was my third year as a singer in Saved by Grace (or SBG, as we called it). I first heard about the choir just a few days after I started my freshman year at USC. There I was, a fresh-faced, 18-year-old, little white boy from the Midwest who had just moved to California, and now I had the chance to live my Sister Act 2 “Joyful, Joyful” dreams. You better believe I was in.
From the first Monday night rehearsal, they had me. The open arms. The welcoming smiles. And that passionate music! I had never experienced a choir or any religious community that had such spirit and such joy. I joined right away, and I loved every single minute of it.
We were a diverse bunch of folks — primarily Black, but almost all people of color — from across the country. In case you were wondering, yes, I was the only white guy, and my middle-America naïveté meant I had a lot to learn.
And so I was taught. One night, folks sat me down in one of the dorm common rooms so I could watch a bunch of the Tyler Perry “Madea” plays (the movies didn’t exist yet!). On MLK Day 2004, I got a crash course in the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” During another rehearsal, I got pulled aside for remedial “gospel sway” lessons because my lanky body was getting just a little too into it — but hey, at least I could clap right!
I was absolutely the minority, no question about it. But I still felt like part of the family. I felt included in everything — especially the night I got to perform the “Joyful, Joyful” rap for the entire USC Black student assembly. Let me just say, I’ve never gotten more hollers, cheers, and applause for anything in my life.
SBG was more than a choir; it was my church. Singing was our ministry, but we also held Bible studies together. We worshipped and prayed together.
And yes, we shared meals together at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles.
As the advisor and I waited for Big Mama to bring us our order, we started to get to know each other a little better because we just hadn’t gotten the chance. No reason, other than he wasn’t usually at all of our rehearsals, and it hadn’t happened yet.
We started with the basics. He told me he was an LA native now in his fifties and followed up that mind-blowing fact by teaching me the phrase: “Black don’t crack.”
We talked about music.
After just a few minutes, Big Mama returned with our meals. I slathered my golden waffle with syrup and swirled it around with the oversized dollop of butter that was slowly melting on top. There truly is nothing better than a Roscoe’s waffle.
A few bites in, the conversation turned to TV, and I started going on and on (and on) about how much I loved “Friends.”
“It’s just the greatest show ever!” I exclaimed across the table. “The best characters. It’s so funny. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen every episode. It’s just perfect.”
I wasn’t exaggerating. I did love “Friends” (and I still do to a lesser degree). I had all 10 seasons on DVD. I hosted a “Friends Farewell” party in my dorm room for the final episode. And just two years prior, I’d even gotten to attend a taping of the show at Warner Bros. Studios. It was a dream come true.
So I sat there with a big ol’ white-toothed smile, beaming about how much I loved this must-see-TV show. After a heavy sigh, he looked down at the table.
“Yeah, I don’t think that show’s really funny,” he said.
I gasped. Shocked, but smiling.
“What! How could anyone not like ‘Friends’?” I chuckled.
“Sam,” he said seriously, looking me straight in the eye. “That show is about people and for people who think the worst thing that can happen to them is a bad hair day. That’s just not my life.”
I paused, not knowing quite what to do with what he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. My smile had faded.
“Here’s what my days look like,” he continued. “I walk around everyday wondering if I’m going to get followed in a store because they assume I’m stealing. I don’t know when a cop is going to pull me over or get in my face. I’m not sure when people are going to throw words at me or just look at me like I’m less than or like I’m going to hurt them.”
I listened. Hard.
“So no, I don’t laugh at people who think everything is falling apart because their hair doesn’t look right,” he explained. “I’ve got much more important things in my life to worry about.”
I took a breath. A lot was going through my mind. And I sighed.
Here I was, surrounded by people who I thought I knew deeply, being shaken awake with the realization that we lived in two different realities. Not just different cultures or different ways of doing things, but two entirely different worlds.
This world was foreign to me, and I would never and could never experience it because I existed in spaces (and TV shows) that affirmed me and my identity and how I moved around the world.
For the first time in my life, I had come face-to-face with my whiteness and all the privilege that came with it.
My whiteness meant I never had to question. I never had to worry. I never had to wonder. I just got to be.
My whiteness meant that I got to walk through life with none of the threats, tension, and trouble that so many of my Black friends encountered every single day.
My whiteness meant that even something as ostensibly mundane as TV comedy was tailor-made for me and my life experiences.
Why am I telling you this story now? Because in the last few months, this memory has come roaring back to me with both clarity and conviction.
See, I want to tell you that moment transformed me. My do-gooder pride wants to tell you that my 2005 epiphany filled me with so much righteous anger that I was compelled to get on up and work hard to make a difference.
But that’s not what happened.
Sure, my heart had broken. My gut ached. I grieved when I looked around at my choir friends with this new, deeper understanding and began to imagine what the world was really like for them.
And yet, I didn’t do a thing. I didn’t think it was my battle. And I certainly didn’t claim any responsibility.
That night, I may have been educated, but I didn’t leave motivated.
Like so many white people, the cognitive dissonance was fleeting, if that. I figured that the big, bad problem of racism had been already been fixed, and these little pockets of injustice — while tragic and heart-wrenching — were getting solved by people other than me. I had no real part to play because the “racists” were the other people — so I thought — and I certainly wasn’t one of them.
And with that illusion of reassurance, I was lulled slowly but surely back into the “easy” life that the world so readily presented to me.
I graduated from USC and said goodbye to SBG. Gradually, career paths, social circles, neighborhoods, and even churches moved me into “safe,” disconnected spaces where I never even had to encounter these narratives anymore. Soon, that Roscoe’s memory faded. More or less, my life unfolded into whiteness, a fantasy world primed for my path and my goals.
And so it was for over a decade.
Fifteen years later, these worlds haven’t changed. Not one bit. But now the same stories I heard from a 50-year-old Black man in Los Angeles are echoing louder and louder with more and more voices than ever before.
At first, I was surprised at the surprise I saw coming from folks around me.
“Where have you people been?” I asked myself. “This is not news. This has been happening for years and years. I’ve known this for a long, long time.” Well, it turns out most folks have never had to sit with these stories — save for the occasional Jordan Peele or Spike Lee movie.
So yes, I knew a few things, but what have I done with that knowledge? What have I really done?
Sure, I’ve shared in the outrage over the countless deaths of Black Americans that have managed to make their way into the public consciousness. I’ve done my best to stay educated about what is happening with policy and elections. I’ve had hard, charged conversations fraught with tension and emotion with friends and family members.
But as this movement of justice for Black lives has grown, I continue to be struck by the question: Has it been enough? Has it been anything? Is my skin — literally — in this game?
Today, as the shouts, chants, stories, poetry, songs, and hissing of graffiti spray cans reverberate across our nation and the world, we have no choice but to heed their call that Black Lives Matter.
We can’t be like I was 15 years ago.
We can’t discover a truth, then bury it.
We can’t be enlightened, then assume someone else will take care of it.
We must let this moment move our whole selves — our minds, our bodies, and our spirits.
We cannot just read. We must commit ourselves to reforming, reinventing, and reimagining this world.
We cannot just cry. We must commit to calling out white supremacy wherever we see it.
We cannot just learn. We must commit to love.
As bell hooks, the prolific Black author and activist, writes, “There can be no love without justice.”
We do not and cannot love our Black brothers, sisters, and siblings until we do the hard, vulnerable, painful work of justice. We must stand up in all of our spheres of influence and power — our relationships, our workplaces, our houses of worship, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our institutions. We must dismantle norms and rewrite narratives. We must actively work against the oppressive systems that want nothing more than to lull us back to sleep.
I want to learn to love better — a lot better. I want to learn to be a better ally. I want to learn to serve my neighbor better.
Because our lives are bound up together — each and everyone of us — and none of us are truly liberated until we have liberated us all.
At my very first rehearsal with SBG, we all stood in a circle and sang together:
The Jesus in you loves the Jesus in me.
And the Jesus in me loves the Jesus in you.
So easy, so easy, so easy, so easy to love.
Then, we danced around the room, found someone, looked them in the eye, and sang those words directly to them. After that, we found someone new and did it again. And again. And again. Until we had sung our hearts out to each and every person in that little chapel. Sometimes it took like 10 minutes, but afterwards, you could feel it. Connecting us all was a real, palpable, Holy Spirit love that filled the entire room.
SBG was the first place I experienced that love.
And that’s the love we need right now.