When I was in my third year in law school in the late 1990s, I walked into the prestigious law review and law journals offices to work. As the senior lead articles editor for the school’s communications journal, I had a deadline coming up and needed to comb through articles journal members had submitted to me to decide which few to accept for publication.
Once I entered the room, I noticed a classmate had left her purse sitting on the workroom table all day unattended while she participated in a Moot Court next door.
I took a seat near one of the computers that lined the perimeter of the work room and started working.
About 15 minutes later, perhaps during a break, she had to come in the workroom and upon seeing I was the only person in the room, it was only then she decided that maybe she shouldn’t leave her purse there.
In her mind, it was safer un-watched in a public building than in a room with a black girl in it.
I had matriculated to college, law school and gotten on a journal and the editorial board, still not enough. Some people, in their minds, will always consider blacks as having some criminal gene or tendencies that cannot be trusted. It’s that ”benefit of the doubt” we’re often denied.
It’s sad. It hurts. That incident remains permanently ingrained in my mind because it signifies that despite rising in the ranks of the upper echelon, I may still be deemed “suspect.” I shouldn’t be surprised.
Four years earlier, while coming out of my dorm elevator in college and wearing a grey campus hoodie, a woman waiting for the elevator door to open jumped out of her skin when she saw 5 ‘3” little ole me coming out of it. She was breathing so fast and told me I “scared” her. By walking out of an elevator in a college dorm?
And there is no sanctuary where I can go to not scare some into thinking I am a criminal, even in place of worship.
This past Sunday, in church, two women, one Hispanic or Italian and another who looked to be of European descent, possibly Anglo-Saxon, sitting on opposite ends of the pew in front of the one my children and I squeezed into, took extra steps to secure their purses after they saw us take seats behind them. My husband couldn’t fit so he sat several rows back.
During the “Sign of the Peace” during our Catholic ceremony, neither shook our hands.
One gave us a quick peace sign, at least, but the other didn’t even look in our direction to acknowledge our presence. Here in the place of worship, the idea of touching our palms gave her anxiety. Wow.
Maybe they each had a cold and didn’t want to spread it. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is sad we’re not equally given the benefit of the doubt of being honest people who do not steal from fellow parishioners. Unfortunately, my kids and I will have to live our entire lives under the presumption of being possible criminals in the minds of many people.
Fortunately, my children are aloof to those subtle gestures that signal this distrust. But after decades of living in America, I’ve learned that comes with the territory of being Black in the USA. I’ve had people clutch their purses and secure them when I walk behind them in lines. I am presumed by some to be a possible pick pocket, I’ve learned. People have to be vigilante but I have also noticed their guards are let down when non-blacks are around them. Something about our presence heightens security awareness.
I am well aware that I will always have to wear the sins of a few who bear my race on my back and so will my kids.
There are 44.3 million Blacks in America per the US Census. Sadly, African Americans constitute 1 million make up the 2.3 million US prison population, 38% of the total though they make up just 14% of the US population.
Of course, much of that is legitimate incarceration, albeit in an inequitable system stacked against those who are poor, uneducated and lack opportunities and adequate resources. (That’s an issue for another post) But there are those on trumped up charges or there for petty offenses too.
The net effect of these numbers, media news stories, TV, the perception of the black rapist, murderrs, criminal, killing all the white people is that there are 43.3 Million people who will suffer and may be considered criminal or suspect based on a small minority in their race.
This number includes the 1.5 million black men who are in college and a lot of innocent mothers, doctors, waitresses, sisters, check out girls, diners, carpenters, shoppers, neighbors.
This 43.3 million include many, like me who have multiple college degrees, and are deemed to be established and upstanding members of society.
But again, none of that really matters when people see your race first.Post-racial is a myth. People who say they don’t “see race” or are “color-blind” lie. Those women didn’t see my credentials when I and my kids walked in and sat behind them in church. They saw a black family and thought potential thieves. It didn’t matter that we were in a church in the first place where they (we) are supposed to follow the gospel of Jesus Christ that teaches them to respect and love all.
I mean it didn’t matter that I shared membership in a prestigious law club with that law school classmate back in the late 90s either. None of that erases the presumption that something about my race cannot be trusted. I am a mom, a lawyer, a suspect.
This is why some oppose efforts to attempt to combat racist perceptions by highlighting how honest, trustworthy and respectable we are in society. Pull up your pants. Don’t litter. Enunciate. Say sir or yes mam. Reject Ebonics and RAP music. By all means reject the dress, music and culture of the “ghetto.” Try not to be anything that will incite someone to shoot you, a la Michael Dunn or George Zimmerman-style.
Respectability or promoting our accomplishments doesn’t matter.
So many times in my life I am presumed to have some criminal element in my DNA that overpowers all the letters behind my name. I am a mom, a lawyer, a suspect. Thus, the extra stress, the chip on the shoulder, the suspicion, the anger that some bear can and should be expected and understood.
The worse offense to this reality comes from those who are not black and do not deal with these issues yet insist on second guessing our experiences and telling us that we are too sensitive or too whiny or complain too much.
It is always our insecurities that explains others’ ill-treatment of us.
Never to blame are those doing the judging or dishing out biased or racist treatment.
Just don’t. It’s condescending, presumptuous and arrogant to reject other people their reality
A recent 2011 Psychology Today article spoke on this response and the colorblind mythl:
“Many Americans view colorblindness as helpful to people of color by asserting that race does not matter.
But in America, most underrepresented minorities will explain that race does matter, as it affects opportunities, perceptions, income, and so much more.
When race-related problems arise, colorblindness tends to individualize conflicts and shortcomings, rather than examining the larger picture with cultural differences, stereotypes, and values placed into context.
Instead of resulting from an enlightened (albeit well-meaning) position, colorblindness comes from a lack of awareness of racial privilege conferred by Whiteness.
White people can guiltlessly subscribe to colorblindness because they are usually unaware of how race affects people of color and American society as a whole.
The only way we will all get closer to changing the status quo and making lives better for us all collectively, is for those unaffected to drop their defenses and listen. It’s not about dishing guilt upon others, but advancement will not be had until all acknowledge others’ truths and we all recognize we all have biases and that they exist and control our actions.
All of us. Not just whites and not just blacks and browns and other people of color.
At least this hunky guy gets it.
After the Michael Dunn/ Jordan Davis Murder Trial verdict where the jury deadlocked on the first degree murder, Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams said while appearing on Jane Velez-Mitchell‘s show on HLN declared that race in America is a problem for all.
“It is not a Black problem. It is a white problem. This is an American problem. This is a societal problem where people should be outraged when a man is able to instigate an interaction with kids and then shoot them when it doesn’t go well,” he continued. “It should be an outrage for everybody.”
This is true.
But sadly, only one or two groups live with a constant halo of suspicion permanently hovering over them. It is a lot to bear and is unfair that I and my children will have to live with it, but we do. But there is an alternative. People have to be open and honest with their biases and try their best to fight them.
That goes both ways. That day in church, another thing happened. A white woman already sitting in my Pew, moved her things over to make room for us to join her. During the recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer”, she took my 6-year old daughter’s hand and linked with all of us. Another elderly white woman in a pew behind us made it a point to shake each of our hands, even the littlest hand.
During our ritual after-church Krispy Kreme run, I struck up a conversation with another White woman, a visitor from Delaware heading back. We had lots in common and had similar backgrounds we learned in that few moments in line waiting for our donuts.
So for every ignorant person full of suspicion and dislike for us based on something as superficial as race, there are others who are open-minded and non judgmental who are willing to see the things that bond us before the things that divide us.
Life is complex and we are stuck with the cards we’ve been dealt, but how we play them matters most.
We cannot live our lives in anticipation for the negative but to embrace and appreciate those who show us love back.