My brother was dancing with a white girl. A racist skinhead started an argument, angered by the sight of a tall Black man with a young white woman.
Before my brother could protect himself, another skinhead ambushed him, smashing a beer bottle into his face, crushing his right eye, and driving glass toward his brain.
That’s what I used to believe about the night my brother was attacked in Santa Monica, California, in March 1994. Twenty years later, I began investigating what happened.
I learned that the men who attacked him weren’t skinheads, but what role did race play that night? Exploring that question led me to reassess what I knew about my brother and our family.
My brother and I had the same white American mother, but different fathers. His was from Nigeria. Being biracial did not change how my brother was seen on the streets of L.A. or in that club in Santa Monica.
Most strangers saw him as Black, and the fact that he had white family members did not protect him from the challenges of being Black in America.
When he was a kid, a white man spat on him at Knotts Berry Farm. When he was a teenager, two police officers questioned him outside our grandparents’ home. They were searching for a 5-foot-5 Black man in his twenties. My brother was fourteen and 6-foot-1, but he was Black—at least in their eyes.
When I was seven, the pizza guy was robbed in our driveway. That night, I was too scared to sleep. My brother came into my bedroom, held my hand, and explained that there was only one special saw that could cut through the iron bars we had on our windows, a blade made of diamonds that was incredibly expensive. Even with that extraordinary saw, robbers would need hours to slice through a single bar. The noise would wake everyone.
The idea of that diamond saw calmed my fears, but it was really my brother who made me feel safe—as he always did.
Both our fathers were gone. My brother’s dad had gone back to Nigeria. Mine had left before I was born. With our mom working long hours as a single parent, my brother became my primary caretaker and the closest person I had to a father.
He was the first person in the family to hold me when I was born. He taught me how to play basketball, how to shave, and how to drive a car.
When his friends said he should tease me more often and rough me up sometimes to “make me a man,” he told them they were fools. He wasn’t going to be that kind of older brother. He was going to be the father he always wished he had—and he was.
I never doubted that our bond was stronger than our differences.
When he was 17 and I was 10, he took me camping near a lake. Other kids liked to jump from a small hill into the water. The drop was no more than twenty feet, but I was too scared to make the leap. My brother knew I was afraid, and told me I didn’t need to jump.
Then he paused and smiled and said words I still remember some forty years later: “If you want to stay here, I’ll stay with you. If you want to jump, I’ll jump with you.”
I doubt the other kids saw us as brothers. His dark body browned in the sun. Mine turned from white to pink to red. I didn’t care how anyone saw us. What mattered was this: Wherever I went, my brother would be there with me.
Then he was attacked.
That night, the security guards let the attacker go and instead grabbed my brother and shoved him into an alley. The police found him barely conscious, bleeding from where his eye had once been. How could anyone do this to my brother?
According to the witnesses, there was only a brief confrontation between my brother and one man before another swung the bottle. The police never identified the attacker.
The police report identifies him only as white, 25-27 years of age, 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, with brown hair, and wearing a blue shirt. It says nothing about motive or about the role that race played in the attack.
In Los Angeles in 1994, as in any American city today, a group of white people could not look at a Black stranger and not see him as Black. But that doesn’t mean it was race that drove the confrontation.
Two witnesses remembered the attacker bragging: “We got him good.” Someone else remembers the n-word being used. If my brother had looked like me, would he have been attacked? Would the security guards have grabbed him and let the attacker go?
My brother’s story offers a unique vantage point on the paradox of race in the United States—the fact that racism persists even while more and more people identify as multiracial.
Some 10 percent of Americans now see themselves as living across at least one racial line. Such statistics can obscure two important facts that my brother’s life makes evident.
First, many biracial Americans encounter racism and racial violence. Second, for every multiracial individual, there is a multiracial family.
At a time when many Americans are debating how to discuss race in schools and the Supreme Court is likely to end affirmative action, my brother’s story reminds us that millions of American families span the color line, embodying both the wounds of our past and the hope of a future beyond racism.
On July 4, 2003, my brother died in a car accident in the Arizona desert.
He was driving from L.A. to Dallas to visit his girlfriend. He had driven much of the night and must have been exhausted when he decided to exit the freeway. He was driving too fast, but if he had both eyes, he still might have seen the tractor-trailer parked on the side of the offramp.
He might have lived.
I can’t remember ever asking my brother what it was like to be Black in a white family. We talked about race, the segregation that still divides our cities, and maps onto inequities in wealth, education, and life expectancy.
I never asked him how he understood the racial divide within our own family.
In part, I blame my silence on the fact that I didn’t have to struggle with the challenges of being biracial or of being Black. I regret not asking my brother about those challenges. I regret not being there for him like he was always there for me.
Now, I have two kids of my own, and I strive–and often fail–to be the kind of father my brother was for me. When they are old enough, I want them to know about the attack and their uncle’s death, but what I really want for them is impossible.
I want them to know my brother, to feel what it was like to be loved by such a man.
Nico Slate is the author of the forthcoming Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race, which will be published this May.
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