What it feels like to be black in America in 2014
Before I am a woman, I am black. I am my skin color and the stereotypes, prejudices, disadvantages, and hatred that others place on me because of it. My race affects every part of my life, and if you’re honest with yourself, it affects every part of yours, too. If most of your friends look a certain way, if most of the people you watch on YouTube or television look a certain way, if you read a book and can only picture characters who look like you, then your race is affecting the lens through which you see the world.
I exist in a world that doesn’t want me, and I watched, heartbroken, again, at the news that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown. Another unarmed black man—teenager, killed, another white police officer vindicated.
The world is hurting right now. America is hurting right now—and it’s not just because of the lack of justice, it’s because of the lack of surprise. It seems like at least once a year (and dishearteningly more frequently) our eyes lock on another tragic event involving an unarmed black person and a white cop. These are people who in some cases were profiled, followed, stereotyped, and finally, murdered. Not all of them were innocent, but some of them were, though the world we live in often paints a picture that any sin committed by a black person is punishable by death.
My skin color should not be an indicator of guilt. Someone else’s skin color should not be an indicator of innocence.
I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. It was pretty suburban, pretty boring, and pretty typical. Many of my white girl friends shoplifted from the Abercrombie at the mall just to feel like the monotonous days had any thrills whatsoever. In fact, one of my white friends got caught shoplifting and was stopped at the door with a stern warning, but not even a ban from shopping there in the future. Think about that when you see the myriad of posts on social media that Michael Brown was a “thug” (2014’s fun new way of saying the n-word). That he “stole from a store, he deserved to die.” Ask yourselves if you think your friend or mother or sister would deserve to die for that. Ask yourself what the difference is.
I remember getting the “talk” from my mother when I was in my early teen years. It was reenacted on Scandal, with Rowan telling Olivia that she had to be “twice as good” to have “half as much as them.” It was a talk that extended into public etiquette. Don’t be too loud. If you get pulled over, do not move until the officer is at the window. Only answer what you have to. Don’t make jokes, it could be seen as disrespectful. I was informed from too young of an age that everything I did was seen as threatening. I grew up being told that I was a “big, scary, Black girl”—when I was and still am 5’4” on a good day, generally even-tempered, and have a “resting nice-face.” At thirteen, I was made to grow up–to be conscientious of how others saw me, because it could mean life or death. And I don’t blame my mother for protecting me in that way.
I have a 4-year-old nephew. He is ridiculously cute and precocious. He loves animals, swimming, and going to preschool. He is Black. I find myself thinking about what his life will be like when he is 18. His father is a tall, broad-shouldered ex-football player. He will likely be built the same. Will he be seen as a threat for daring to exist? Will he find himself at the wrong place at the wrong time? Will he make it to the age I am now?
I think about how in a few years I will likely bring children into the world. How can I ignore the fact that they are more likely to be jailed than they are to graduate from high school? How can I protect them from a world that wants to hurt them—that even when they play by every rule, will be painted as thugs?
I can’t force you to feel how I’m feeling—and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies. I can only help to make you understand that life is not the same for everyone in this country, and it never has been. If you don’t feel anything about this Michael Brown case, please note that privilege. It is a privilege to not have to fear for your life, or the life of your family. It is a privilege to not have to critically think about race and oppression. Some of us may never be that lucky.
Photo courtesy of sacbee.com