Protesters gather outside of a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 15, 2018, where two black men were arrested after employees called police to say the men were trespassing. Starbucks is giving anti-bias training to all employees. (Photo credit: Michael Bryant / Philadelphia Inquirer)

The perils of existing while black

By the Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson

We have heard before of the perils of driving while black and walking while black. Having been followed through stores with my son, I know the difficulties that can arise when you are shopping while black. But just when it seemed that things could get no worse, the news has been inundated with a spate of “existing while black” offenses.

Police were called on businessmen waiting at a Philadelphia Starbucks.[1] Their offense: waiting while black. White golf club owners called police claiming that five women were playing too slowly.[2] Their offense: golfing while black. Teenagers shopping at Nordstrom Rack were stopped in the store parking lot, accused of shoplifting. Police verified that the teenagers had receipts for everything in their possession; their offense, therefore, was obviously shopping while black.[3] A member of a fitness club went to the gym to work out with a friend. He was told that he needed to pay and then leave.[4] He was exercising while black. As four people exited an Airbnb rental home, they were approached by police and accused of burglary.[5] Was their offense vacationing while black?

And, then, right here at Yale University, a graduate student found that napping while black was an offense. A white student called police on this graduate student as she napped in her dormitory’s common room.[6] Allegedly, this same student called police on another student who became lost in the dorm as he arrived for a study session.[7] The Yale administration responded quickly to the napping incident, with the vice president for Student Life expressing that “We still have so much more to do.”[8] Do we ever.

What does it mean in a society when black people are called into question for doing the most basic functions? You can’t sleep, wait, shop, get lost or recreate without someone challenging that inherent right to exist and be. Some have noted that this phenomenon is endemic of white privilege and implicit bias. There is truth in these comments. As the United States nears becoming a minority majority nation, some in the majority have expressed discomfort and, at times, have acted out in discriminatory ways, demonstrating the extent of that discomfort. Classism also plays a part when you consider the bias exhibited against blacks golfing at a club, reserving a high-end rental or attending an Ivy League school. Such bias expresses entitlement, suggesting that some do not belong.

The root of the problem is deeper than that of privilege, changing demographics or class. The root is sin. Through the sins of humanity, we are estranged not only from God but also from one another. We can no longer see our neighbor. We do not welcome the stranger. We cite them as “other,” and, in their otherness, we act in polarizing and fearful ways. The recent epidemic of “existing while black” episodes proves the extent of our estrangement. Moreover, I would maintain that the increase of such occurrences has only been exacerbated by our noxious political climate.

In Revelation 7:9, John writes of a vision in which a great multitude from every nation, tribe and language is worshipping as one at God’s throne. Can you imagine? Although they are with people who are otherwise unknown to them, no one is anxious. No one is expressing concern that too many people of color are in the gathering. Humanity achieves around the throne what we have yet to realize even on a Sunday morning: desegregated worship. What would it look like to have humanity come together as brothers and sisters in this hospitable spirit of welcome and embrace? What do we need to do to realize such a vision?

We need to repent for the conditions that have brought us to this place. As God said to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Repentance is truly necessary for healing to begin. Additionally, we need to open ourselves to the kind of hospitality implied in Revelation 7:9. All were welcomed around the throne. All were welcomed to simply exist and be. In practical terms, if we see a brother or sister who is lost or out of place, we might first ask if we can be of assistance, rather than call police. And if we see in ourselves the propensity to jump to a prejudiced conclusion because of someone’s difference, we admit our own shortcomings so that we can open ourselves to new learning.

Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. When I go to Starbucks, work out at the gym, or shop at a department store, I simply want to be welcomed, like anyone else. If I’m lost, I just might want someone to say, “Can I help you?” Existing, at times, is perilous enough. Existing while black does not need to be nearly as difficult as it has become.