As a kid, I spent most of my time between two worlds. My youngest years were spent in a small suburb in between Queens and Long Island in New York City. It wasn’t rich, but it wasn’t poor. It was a predominantly black town neighboring one that was predominantly white. The rest of my time was spent in the heart of Brooklyn. Again, predominantly black, but also right next to one of the largest Hasidic Jewish communities in the country.
These were not bad neighborhoods, as many black communities are so often portrayed in the media. There was a sense of family and relatively little crime. That isn’t to say there was none — every once in a while there was a shooting or gang activity. There was also racism: I remember being tailed in a Rite-Aid that I went to often near my house for no real reason (I think I went to see if they had any new mechanical pencils — I was a nerd). Regardless, there were definitely worse places in both Brooklyn and Queens to live.
My family, like most families, wasn’t perfect either. Far from the idyllic African-American family portrayed on The Cosby Show or Family Matters, I had to deal with drug abuse and undiagnosed (and the denial of) mental illness on one side and a lack of communication on the other. I generally trust my instincts (and my mom), and throughout my childhood they told me that my environment was far from normal. I wanted to make things — at the time, I think I wanted to be an inventor — I didn’t want to become like the people that I saw on the news every night. They usually were black, like me, but they were being arrested for various crimes and generally made out as bad people. What seven, eight, nine year old wants to be a bad person?
My somewhat shameful solution was to reject everything about black culture in a naïve effort to distance myself from what I was told to be “bad” by society. Instead of listening to rap, I discovered Utada Hikaru and Shiina Ringo. Instead of playing basketball, I played Dance Dance Revolution and Final Fantasy. In my environment, rejecting that culture meant being alone. Even though I didn’t yet know what a statistic was, I know now that the fear of becoming one was much more potent than the fear of being all alone when I got home from school.
The first school that I attended was a predominantly black school in the middle of Brooklyn. I didn’t really fit in, but I managed to make it four years there because I had been in the movies. I spent my first year there not in school, instead home-schooled on the set of The Preacher’s Wife. I was extremely lucky to be able to spend six formative months in the company of some of the most successful African-American people I’ll probably ever meet. This was, unfortunately, a privilege that many kids don’t have. Who knows where I’d be without it?
I spent four years at that school, and then the rest of my pre-college years in Manhattan at schools that were accredited and in good neighborhoods. In retrospect, it was a very weird transition. That aside, I only spent four more years in the entertainment business. There were a lot of reasons why I quit acting, the most prevalent being my realization that the endgame for many celebrities were reminiscent of the news stories I’d watch about criminals as a kid. Defamed by the media all the same, it seemed to me like stardom was just a more glamorous path to the same outcome, albeit with less, if any, consequences.
I also just wanted to be normal kid.
When I look at what has been happening in Ferguson, MO for the past two weeks, it makes me indescribably sad. It’s an upsetting situation to begin with, but for someone like me, perpetually trapped between two worlds, it’s upsetting because I feel so close to it but also so far. It’s frightening, because I should be able to relate to it more than I can. After all, in today’s America, I could walk to the store right now and be shot dead in my tracks because of a misunderstanding, or perhaps for no reason at all.
I can’t help but think, if I were, what would they say about me? Would there be a headline that former child actor Justin Edmund was mistakenly shot and killed by an unnamed police officer? Would they say that it was a tragedy that the seventh employee of Pinterest, a five-billion dollar technology company was accidentally shot because he looked like a suspect in some nearby crime? Would they say I had a long life of success ahead of me? Would they say that it was a shame? Would I be missed? Would I be a victim?
Would they vilify me?
To take from the popular anecdotes, I’ve never smoked and never stolen, but despite how much of a straight arrow I am, I’m sure that the media in today’s America would find a way to make me into the bad guy. I don’t know how, but I bet Mike Brown would never imagine that they could vilify him either. After all, we are all products of our environments and “wrong” is a relative term.
This is the first time I’ve written about race, diversity, or discrimination. Due to many factors, this is also the first time I’ve even really thought about them. What Ferguson has taught me is that no matter how far I distance myself from my identity, my race or racism as a twisted, societally-prescribed mechanism of self-defense, there are people in the world that will never see past the color of my skin. Instead, they will shoot me dead for walking home from the corner store with Skittles and an Arizona iced tea. For many of you fortunate enough to read this blog post, you will never know how frightening that is. The message that the events in Ferguson, MO have sent to the entire world is that black people are sub-human — they are always in the wrong, they do not deserve human rights, and they do not deserve justice.
What happens inside of Ferguson isn’t the only tragic thing either. Powerful leaders, be they in technology or politics or Hollywood, don’t actually seem to care. Focusing solely on Silicon Valley, one of the most progressive places in the world, powerful companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter all have stood up for LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, and most recently awareness for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), all of which is respectful and very welcome. I have not seen a single technology leader (edit: besides @jack) acknowledge the crisis in Ferguson. And why would they bother? At most major technology companies, an average 2% of their workforce is African-Americans — we’re talking tens of people at companies employing thousands of people. At my own company, its even worse at only 1%. I can count us all on one hand.
Ferguson has serious implications for all of us in a big way. What happens there will impact our government, our society, our freedoms and our future regardless of what race you are, including if you’re white. It is worth paying attention to and it is worth speaking up about, because even if you are not black, some day, in some future, you too could be shot down in broad daylight by an increasingly oppressive government for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I wrote a tweet last week about being reluctant to go to the corner store when the riots in Ferguson were occurring last week. I suspect many people thought I was making a bad joke. I wasn’t. I was scared. We should all strive for a future where our children can grow up without fear of being monitored by their government, being treated differently at work, or being wrongly shot down by a police officer who will never have to face justice. Children shouldn’t have to grow up being afraid of who they are, the color of their skin, or what they may become. The people in Ferguson, MO realize that, and are fighting with their lives for our future right now.
There is no easy solution, and it isn’t something that will be changed overnight, but the first step has to begin with people ceasing to say, “It isn’t about me.”
Thanks to Tracy for inspiring me to take action and write this piece in the first place. My girlfriend, Linna, for beating it into me that I have to care about these things, and Irene for giving me much-needed late-night critique.