When I tell you this story, you’re going to swear I’m lying. But I ain’t lying. This really happened.
An acquaintance of mine has been having financial difficulty ever since her freelance contract came to an end last year. As a fellow freelancer, my heart went out to her, so I told her I would support her in any (realistic) way I could. She’d been looking for a buyer for her used car, and I secured one for her. Three weeks ago, my housekeeper’s brother-in-law bought her car for cash.
I wasn’t privy to the details of the transaction, but she saw me on the street a few days later and asked me if I could get back in touch with the gentleman and tell him that she’s trying to work out the transfer paperwork. As it turns out, the car is in her son’s name and would need his authorization to make the transfer legal and complete. He’s on an oilrig somewhere, and is hard to reach. Every time she saw me, she asked me to convey her apologies to him.
“Please tell him I’m so sorry! I’m trying to get this sorted out.”
I laughed and told her that I don’t think he’s too worried about the issue.
“I’ve seen the car in town a few times,” I said. “I don’t think he’s worried about paper issues, since he’s driving it so frequently.”
Her voice grew dark.
“Well, if he has an accident I’ll be the one liable for it hey. If he does have an accident, I’ll just report the car as stolen.”
By now, everyone has seen the video of two Black men being arrested for waiting for a colleague at Starbucks. If there is any justice in America, the pair should be the beneficiaries of a substantial settlement, courtesy of the java giant. That anyone should face the possibility of arrest for participating in activities that constitute a major part of a company’s business model – in this case, congregating in a congenial atmosphere – is reprehensible and unthinkable. Unless you’re Black, of course. #PlayingTheRaceCard
Being Black in America has never been an easy feat. We’ve been treated as chattel, vermin, criminals and eventually a “white man’s burden” since our ancestors were first brought to the New World. Our humanity is yet to be fully recognized. Being Black in white spaces is often an exercise in theatrics, with the expectation that our characters be adept at code switching and adhering to unspoken rules that will either guarantee one’s survival or ensure its demise.
Don’t sit at this lunch counter
Don’t walk through this neighborhood
Don’t wear a hoodie
Don’t laugh too loudly
Don’t play your music too loudly
Don’t sell CDs on a corner
Don’t use the bathroom
Don’t shop in these locations…
…the list on how to be Black in white spaces is infinite and ever morphing. These rules don’t just apply to America, but any country where racism and segregation have formed the foundation of its functioning. South Africa, my current country of residence, is not exempt from this folly either. Like America, this is a country where one’s greatest sin is to be born a poor person of color. You will be made to suffer and account for it until you finally reach the grave. Even then, you will still be spoken ill of.
The Starbucks video of two Black men calmly being shackled and wrongfully imprisoned coupled with the story of a young teen who was shot at by a white neighbor for asking for directions have dominated social media conversation this week. As predicted, white reaction has been one of incredulity. There is a staunch belief in the inherit goodness of whiteness, and so when two men – two professional men – are arrested for something that white women do every day, there has to be more to the story. When a lost kid knocks on a neighbor’s door – like white children do all over the country – and is shot at, he must’ve done something to trigger a fear response in the couple that answered the door. I’m sorry to break it to you, dear Reader, but the only element responsible for triggering such a response is the presence of melanin. Whether it’s guilt or shame, there is something about being in the presence of blackness that invokes a visceral response in many white people. And sometimes, that response comes with deadly and damaging consequences for my people.
This happens more frequently than white people think. There are two things that block them from recognizing this, however: Implicit bias and a blindness to privilege. The world does not work for everyone as it works for white people; something that they cannot understand because they truly believe we live in a post racial world. And yet when we compare the incidences of police brutality, predatory lending, housing discrimination, wage disparity, access to quality education, and so on and so forth between my children’s generation and those of my parents, the similarities are uncanny. There has not been as much growth as the mainstream would have us suppose. And though today the races legally share space together in a contrived form of equality, the perceptions and biases that white people hold against people of color have not been altered much over the centuries. In a bizarre twist of that failure to evolve, many white people hold the notion that people of color will be subjected to the same preferential treatment that they are accustomed to, when subjected to similar circumstances. This is why Starbucks’ CEO could say, without irony, that his Philly store manager did not think that the two men would be arrested after she called the police to report them as loitering in a place whose business model depends on the vapid idleness of the masses.
White people who – as a matter of routine – call the police on Black people for engaging in every day activities have not taken the time to think through the consequences of their actions. This is why Tamir Rice will not be sending out college applications this year. It’s why John Crawford will never shop at a store again. It is why my white acquaintance can so glibly announce her intention to call the cops on her customer should an unfortunate car accident occur.
I don’t know what the consequences of calling the police for car theft are in South Africa, but I imagine that they can’t be good for the suspect. My hope is that such an accusation would not end in an immediate death sentence, as one would anticipate in America. My white acquaintance failed to conduct her business properly. Knowing her, I can bet my left boob that she failed to produce a bill of sale for her customer – a Coloured man – and conducted the entire transaction in “good faith”. That she could then could violate that faith and hatch a plan to paint him as a criminal for her dereliction is astounding. Has she considered what such an accusation would do to his reputation? How her actions might affect his family? What the ripple affects of his false imprisonment would have on his community?
And that’s the frightening aspect of engaging with white people in spaces they consider to be theirs exclusively. Their casual duplicitousness comes with devastating consequences for people of color, while they earn a slap on the wrist…if ever.
White violence manifests in many forms, the most comforting of which presents itself as a confederate flag (or tiki torch) waving, shaved head sporting, swastika exhibiting man racing down Main Street shouting racial epithets. That we can deal with head on. More insidious is the casual white violence, the type that shows up as passive aggressiveness and irrational fear that catches you unaware. There’s no way to “prepare” for this type of violence…and that’s what makes it so much more frightening.