Tap into the anger, the frustration, the disappointment that you feel when you see these injustices happening.
Reach deep, and show those emotions that you’ve grown so adept at hiding away in the little crevices under your calm, collected, diplomatic exterior.
Why have you kept this to yourself for so long?
If you have so much to say, why don’t you let it out?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to define my place in the black community. I am the son of two Trinidadian immigrants who always seemed to distance themselves from their compatriots. They divorced when I was three, and both eventually married white people. I grew up surrounded by white Park Slopian soccer moms and their white children, listening to their music, speaking like them, dressing like them. In my completely black elementary school I was a bizarre specimen, called Oreo by many. That’s not to say that I had no exposure to black culture; my identity as a Trinidadian was the one of the few relating factors that allowed me to fit in at school. When I transferred to a white prep school later on, the panic that came with realizing how deeply disconnected I was from the community led me to latch onto that Trinidadian part of me with a maniacal fervor. The pre-teen malaise eventually subsided, but I still worried for years afterward that my blackness was not enough to be valid simply because I hadn’t had enough of the Black Experience that pervaded conversations about race in the school.
Who was I, the guy that had at times been described as “black but not too black” by a white friend, to participate in discussions on race relations and the problems affecting the black community? I had opinions, sure, and they were shaped in part by the fact that I had spent so much time with white people as “the black friend” around whom they let their guard down long enough to slip and say something wildly ignorant. But I never spoke up to correct them, out of some personal need to avoid conflict and a lack of confidence in my ability to properly show them the truth. And when the black students debated the racial issues that I knew had affected me, I never spoke up to talk about what I had seen and heard, feeling as if I was not qualified to say that I had struggled with those issues.
That was wrong of me.
As much as I have perceived a separation of sorts from the rest of the black community, in the real world that sense of otherness is a total fallacy. Who I grew up around, where I went to school, how I speak, none of that matters when I walk down the street and still get stopped and searched by the police for no good reason. Strip the clothes away and there is no otherness, and I am every bit the same as the black kid that grows up trying his hardest to get an education but is failed by the system because nobody bothers to invest in making sure the public schools in the “hood” are being run properly — that money gets pumped into the schools the white soccer moms send their kids to, and I know because I watched it happen. I am every bit the same as the black man who gets arrested and sentenced to years in prison for minor possession of drugs — the same drugs I watch white friends buy, sell, smoke, and carry in the open like it’s no big deal. I am every bit the same as the black man who is shot and killed by some racist monster for walking down the street, claiming he was “standing his ground”. Or shot and killed and choked and killed by white police officers that claim unarmed black men posed a threat to their lives.
Every time a black man loses his life for no good reason at the hands of a police officer that will always get away with it, that otherness I feel makes less and less sense to me. Every time “The System” ruins another black kid’s life because of something a white kid would always have gotten away with, I am less and less inclined to say that I am different from the rest of the community. And when a white man can effortlessly buy a gun, go into a church and massacre good black people while wearing the symbols of apartheid in a state that still flies the flag of a nation that fought to keep black slaves shackled, I understand that I can no longer hold my tongue.
The need for discourse and education on these issues is greater today than it has been at any time in my life, pointing out the inequalities between blacks and whites and making as many people as possible aware of the cycle of injustices that strangle black society. That need is so great because there are far too many people who genuinely believe that we live in a post-racial society, that it was all balloons and confetti when the Civil Rights Act was passed fifty years ago and it’s all been Happily Ever After since then.
I know this because I know them.
I know the people who completely miss the point of #BlackLivesMatter and want it changed to #AllLivesMatter. I know that they do not have the worldview or the education to comprehend the sheer scale of the problems facing the black community, and that nobody has ever properly shown them because being white they have never had to give those problems a single thought. Of course when a black man gets shot and killed many of them will sympathize with the police officer and say that he was justified in defending himself against a “thug” who was, in their eyes, a delinquent and uneducated drug dealer/hoodrat going nowhere in life. They’ll wonder why people are rioting when the officer is let off the hook by a questionable internal panel, failing to see the lack of accountability for an officer committing murder. And they’ll call the terrorist in Charleston a troubled man, “introverted with few friends”, pitying him while wondering What Went Wrong because they don’t understand that what he did is no different from what the white supremacists did to black people for how many hundreds of years, and that he did it harboring the same hatred of black people that his predecessors acted on in the past. It is my responsibility as a black man to speak up and to open the eyes of as many people as possible, because in silence I allow them to continue in their ignorance — purposeful or not.
And I cannot let myself be bogged down by the idea that my black is not black enough. That doesn’t matter, and never mattered. The anger I feel when I see these things happen is real, the frustration of not knowing what to do about it is real, the disappointment that nothing changes once the media frenzy dies down is real.
The only way to educate white people and make them privy to the blatant racism that pervades the country right now is by letting that anger be seen, by throwing it up in big, bold letters and forcing the conversation. They need to be shown that the police brutality shown towards blacks in pictures of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s is the same police brutality on the streets of black neighborhoods today. They must understand that the justice system that put black people in jail for crimes that white people would have gotten nothing more than slaps on the wrist for in the past is the same justice system that does the same nonsense today. They have to see the dead bodies of black people killed with impunity by racist whites, police or civilian, that grew up with the fear and prejudice against black people that is a part of the upbringing in white society whether they realize it or not. And they need to understand too that those same dead bodies are the end result of a group of people consistently disadvantaged in education, labor, health, and housing, and that when black people say that “The System” is stacked against them they’re telling the truth, as much as many white people hate to hear it. Without seeing these problems for what they are and comprehending the fact that the work of Civil Rights is far from over, white society will go on in their ignorance and the cycle will go on.
With this and with my stepmother’s portraits, I tell the world that I have indeed struggled with these issues, and that I will not continue to fume and grieve in silence. One less opportunity in my life to become the man I am today, and I might well have been one of the bodies on television. I have to appreciate that, and I have to use the education I received and the exposure that I have to both black and white society to play my part in the process of making things better for everyone. I don’t claim to have the answers, I don’t know how to fix the broken system and make sure that black people are afforded all the opportunities of and treated in the same manner as white people.
But I’ve got far too much to say not to talk about it.
See the rest of Stephanie Corne’s photo series, “Unarmed and Dead”, at www.stephaniecorne.com/unarmed-and-dead/