When wearing clothes in public I don’t generally stray from a stock uniform- a boring tee with an optional jacket or hoodie, dark long jeans, plain close-toed tennis shoes. It’s a uniform I’ve worn for optimum comfort/obscurity since I was in middle school, and it’s been a point of contention with my parents for just as long. To this day, I’m not able to make a visit home without having them insist I get some nice clothes before coming back. “Wear a button-up shirt, get some nice pants and a belt, comb your hair, put on some nice shoes.” I saw it as the stuffy regime of old people trying to ‘fix’ the stubborn youth until my mom calmly sat me down one day with tears in her eyes to plead that I start dressing up more.
She told me that because of the color of my skin, I will always be seen as different. I don’t get the privilege of living for optimum comfort or obscurity. I will always have to be twice as upright to get half the respect, not only in my studies and my work, but in the way I present myself. Even then I rolled my eyes and wanted to believe that racism was as antiquated an idea as slavery or smoking on airplanes, but I’ve thought about that speech routinely for the last decade, because it comes tumbling back into my head when a black person is unceremoniously murdered for not following those unwritten rules.
It’s July 7th, 2016. At the time of writing, it hasn’t been more than 48 hours since both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police who stopped them, perceived a threat, and executed them. Videos of their death are circulating like morbid memes, showing so clearly that the problem lied squarely on the hands of the cops. Cop reform’s the answer, right? Cops are killing, so we should push for the government to make a change in their ability to kill so easily. That sort of thinking is good-natured and helpful, but it also shifts blame away from the real problem. The real problem is that our world is terrified of black people.
Systemically, culturally, and societally, a black person is something to fear. It’s an idea we see in television and movies, in anecdotes and cautionary tales to our friends, our children, our loved ones. I want so much to believe the descriptor of “black” as a synonym for “hardened” or “dangerous” is out of date, but it isn’t. Cops are perfectly equipped to kill black people because the justice system understand their fear, and they’re given the tools to act on it at any moment. Alton Sterling was murdered because a non-complicit black man might as well be a bear. Philando Castile was murdered because a black man reaching out view might as well be a stingray.
Countless black men and women have been murdered for not presenting themselves by the unwritten rules of whiteness, and when they are, the world is more than happy to tell them what rules they should have followed in their lives up to that point. “Here’s where you’re supposed to keep your ID,” “you shouldn’t have had a criminal past,” “pull up your pants and say ‘yes officer’ with each sentence.” No one ever wants to discuss what rules a cop should’ve been following, because the benefit of the doubt is always granted to someone’s career choice before it’s granted to black skin. Every time a black man is murdered by police, it’s like a starter pistol for the press to hurry and find something in their past that proves they’re as bad as they believe a black man should be.
When I heard about Alton Sterling, I mentally skipped all five stages of grief. It is too regular and I am too used to seeing the cycle of death and despair and inactivity as my black brothers and sisters die in the street. Before I could rouse myself into reading about the case, Philando Castile died too. The video appeared on Twitter. I made the mistake of watching it. I spent hours crying. He did exactly what I’ve been taught to do with the police since I was a child. He complied. He followed orders and reached for his ID, and he was still shot. In the middle of the day, in full view of his girlfriend and child.
Some were quick to blame his murder on the fact that he had a gun, despite it being legally registered and obtained and the officer being made aware of it. (As if the second amendment rights you fight for doesn’t grant the same privileges to white people as it does to black.) I read about the good things Philando Castile had done. I saw photos of him. He dressed like me. His mother looked like mine. He had undoubtedly been given ‘the speech’ about the police and blackness from her, but it wasn’t enough to protect him. But why not? If we can’t be ourselves as much as you can, how ‘white’ do we have to be to live? What’s the mortal threshold of whiteness?
I can’t keep reading the whimsical tweets of white friends, with the vague wish for “less violence.” I can’t keep accepting people with an audience praying for justice without being specific for fear of losing that audience. I can’t keep watching as people who profit from blackness check just enough boxes to register emotion until another black person’s murder falls back into the ether between pandering about pizza and Netflix. I can’t keep looking at Instagrams of dead black men and women whose names are burned into my brain not because they represent change, but a lack thereof. I can’t keep sitting silent as black men and women go from being alive to being hashtags, like genies being sucked into their lamps.
I want so much to still believe in the good of the world and hope that both the federal and societal issues with cops and the perception of black people can change in my lifetime. I want to stop seeing blackness aligned with evil. I want to stop seeing black people portrayed so passively as two-dimensional criminals in movies and television. I want to stop seeing black intelligence and softness depicted as ironic or funny, the joke being that everyone understands it’s wacky for black people to have either. I want the world to stop feeling shaken by the presence of black people. I am not a boogeyman. I am not a wild bear, or a stingray, or a spider crawling through your space. I’m the same as you, and if you’re afraid of me, you should be just as afraid of yourself.
My parents love me very much, and know me as well as any parent could. They know I’m a good kid who’s never done anything wrong, but they ask me to dress differently because it’s the easiest way to tell the world that same thing. But if my skin and my outfit won’t placate you, I want desperately to know what will before “get some nice clothes” turns from being code for “we love you” to being funeral instructions.
You can support Campaign Zero to address police violence here. You can donate to Issa Rae’s Alton Sterling scholarship fund here. You can donate to the fund established by Philando Castile’s sister here.