I was inordinately upset the day that my pearl necklace broke. Not just another accessory, this necklace was an amulet, warding off the unpleasant harassment or profiling my other less fortunate black brothers and sisters experienced. Whatever negative snap judgments others might make of me based on the color of my skin would no doubt be reversed by the presence of the pearls. A pearled woman could pose no threat to anyone. Without them, I felt vulnerable.
I’ve made do transferring my trust to other parts of my wardrobe.
What if you woke tomorrow with #AliciaAkins the next trending hashtag on Twitter? The latest in the series of senseless unnecessary black deaths? Inconceivable. “How did this happen?” you’d probably wonder. As a white friend once told me (in not so many words), there are two kinds of black people: ones that have assimilated and are like white people and miscreants. I’m one of the good ones, they’d say. “Alicia doesn’t drive, so it’s not likely she got pulled over. She has a regular 9 to 5 job so it’s not like she’d be out on the street selling anything. She doesn’t wear hoodies. She’d never own a gun or even touch a toy model at Walmart. How could this have happened? She didn’t do all the things those others did. Her life was practically police-proof: no drugs—not even alcohol, always in the right place at the right time (if not 5 minutes early), she’d never smart off at an officer. She was my friend, my small group leader, my colleague.” Hashtags are only supposed to precede the names of strangers, not people you know.
Until they do.
Imagine an Uber ride from hell: You just finished up at the gym and smell of sweat as you jump into your ride still in your workout clothes. Not your best look, or smell for that matter-let’s be real. Your driver sets off to your destination. GPS says it’s 7 minutes away. It starts raining. Your driver struggles to read the GPS and stops in the middle of an off ramp as cars whiz by on either side. You buckle your seatbelt. As she continues, the time to destination gets longer and longer and the city starts to disappear in the rearview. After mounting frustration, an hour has passed and now you’re stopped on the side of the interstate in tears arguing with the driver about why you haven’t arrived yet, feeling trapped now that your phone battery has died, the driver has cancelled the trip and you don’t have the address written down. You wonder if you should just ditch the car and find your way back to town on foot while you can still see it. And then you remember that woman who got in a car accident in a white suburb of Detroit and ran for help. You remember she got shot in the head. You remember she was black. You remember #RenishaMcBride.
I stayed in the car.
Last week was a long week. And to be honest, it was a lonely one. I kept waiting for someone to ask me how I was doing, for someone to reach out. I heard from one friend living overseas, she said she was thinking of me. But my friends close by? Even my friends on the other side of the country? Silence. It was a silence that cut. It was a also a silence that, to me, really placed into stark contrast the different life I’m living from my non-black friends. I felt by the end of the week that my community of friends here had failed me; I was disappointed that none of them knew or cared how hard it is to be black and go through a week like that.
I already have problems sleeping. Last week was no exception. I found myself awake in the middle of the night checking Twitter, originally to make sure nothing was going on in Bangladesh where I have friends. After the all clear, I checked trending hashtags and learned of #AltonSterling. The next night when I found myself sleepless again, I went in search of more information about him only to discover a second victim, #PhilandoCastile. I had to double check it wasn’t the same man, incredulous that two could happen in such rapid succession. I stayed up a few more hours looking for more information. I spent several hours refreshing of my twitter feed to keep up with not only the unfolding events but the commentary. Never a good idea. The next night my body insisted, for consistency’s sake, on waking up again in the middle of the night. This time it was #Dallas. I followed the breaking story hoping that by the morning they would have figured out it was a “mentally unstable” white guy trying to shoot blacks but getting cops instead. White people get away with committing crimes without there being any negative assumptions cast on the entire group. 10 white thieves equals 10 white thieves, but 1 black killer makes us all dangerous thugs. It was sickening regardless of the perpetrator but a black shooter would only make things worse for us. Given the sense of hopelessness I had read about during the previous two nights—the sense that the system wasn’t for blacks and couldn’t protect us—I wasn’t surprised the shooter turned out to be black.
I walked out of my house to head to work each day last week imagining the worst. Visualizing patterns of splattered blood on each outfit I wore. I never should have watched the Philando Castile video. Or spent so much time on Twitter.
An old friend of mine is married to what sounds like, by all accounts, a wonderful man. Provider. Great dad. Affectionate husband. He also happens to be a policeman. Whenever I hear of violence against police, I think of him. There are countless like him whose wives I don’t know who love and depend on them, and see them off for the day praying they return in time for bed time stories with the kids. A part of the honor of their job though is that they chose to put themselves in harm’s way. They sign up for it. It comes with the job. Yet I’m vulnerable to harm simply because I exist with brown skin, which doesn’t come with working hours, vacation time, or the option to quit.
After Dallas she posted about violence against the police, which I do not condone. She said she was ill (tell me about it!) and that she didn’t want to debate (I can totally relate). She blamed uninformed narrative and said lives hang in the balance (my point exactly). But then she said “THIS is wrong” and I stopped following. The THIS hits me with force as though THAT (the killing of black men and women) was not wrong. Can we not grieve for both? “THIS” tries to delegitimize the trauma that the black community is going through at yet more avoidable loss. Her husband chose harm’s way when he became a policeman. I was born into it from a black womb.
Life sits on the furthest edge of things black people lose because of others’ bias. It is the heaviest weight placed on the scale of injustice because it is irreversible but it is not the only one. The weight of all the other losses, ones more likely to directly effect me, is staggering. Black lives matter was a response to police brutality but our lives matter not just when the consequence of bias is fatal.
If even I— who stare back at a black reflection everyday in the mirror knowing its full potential, who have been loved by a black family from birth—fall prey to implicit bias, I have a hard time buying that you—most likely one of my beloved white friends who can count the number of black acquaintances and coworkers besides me you’ve had in your entire life on one hand or one of the 3/4 of white people who have no black friends at all—are unaffected.
The other day, someone suggested that this was our moment, that this is a historic time ripe for change if only blacks would take full advantage of its potential. When over 100,000 people have signed a petition to get black lives matter listed as a terrorist group it sure doesn’t seem like our moment. This isn’t a moment that feels pregnant with possibilities; it feels like a stillbirth. To say, “Hey guys, I see that you’re bleeding and bruised but could you go prop up the pillows of those guys over there who aren’t injured” seems callous to me. Let me recover first, or better yet, let others without wounds look after each other. Calls for dialogue, peace, understanding, and “We all need to work together” seem so 90s (Can we all get along?) and since I can’t get behind violence as a solution where do we go from here? What’s left to believe except nothing works. Some white folks seem unwilling to budge and acknowledge the experience, grief, and grievances of blacks even as six in 10 Americans think things are getting worse. I get that the recent tension has everyone a little on edge. I get that with last week’s cascade of one horrible news story on top of the next that there’s a lot of intellectual and emotional fatigue out there. My fatigue is existential. My blackness has worn me down. Are we really asking that much as black people to be treated a little better? For others to recognize their bias? For better policies? Why in the world is any of this too much to ask in 2016 when we are no longer counted as 3/5 of a life and it’s been 151 years since we were promised to be 5/5? To be equal?
I’ve had friends say to me that they didn’t take previous killings seriously but that these actually seemed horrible because of the video, either forgetting or never having paid attention to the fact that others had video as well. It’s the tree falling in the forest question: if racism or police brutality happens but no one records it, did it really occur? I’ve had multiple friends show me pictures of black men protecting police after the Baltimore riots last year and not realize they were old either because they’d already forgotten about them or they weren’t paying attention in the first place-both options that their privilege allows. Next week, next month, next year with the next hashtag they’ll say: “Didn’t some man’s two year old daughter record him on Facebook Live after he got shot by the police for selling CDs in Dallas?” #whoselifematters?
To my friends who don’t believe what I say, to those who insist #alllivesmatter, you are not my friends. To people whose minds aren’t made up but are willing to listen and learn and aren’t just satisfied with being decent, you are always welcome at my table.
In 2006 Proctor and Gamble created a campaign called “My Black is Beautiful.” This was not about putting down white people, or claiming that black people were more beautiful than white people or that only black people were beautiful. It was an affirmation of something that we would never have been able to tell based on faces in mainstream magazines and popular television shows: that black people are also beautiful. So it is with black lives matter, it’s not about supremacy it’s about it not being obvious that they do. Even if you can’t get behind the hashtag, can you get behind your friend as she mourns?
This blog, Feet Cry Mercy, is about walking in others’ shoes, it’s about uncomfortable empathy. Would you join me?