Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (The Roots, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, large black man) recently posted on Facebook in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Strangely enough, his post on being seen as a menacing figure in his own luxurious apartment building made me examine my own experiences. Not in being a black male. But in sometimes being mistaken for one.
In the year since I’ve cut my hair, I’ve been pulled over twice for no reason AKA “randomly stopped.” This may not seem like a lot (especially for all those people in New York where stop and frisk is alive and well) but it’s been enough for me to change a few things about how I operate. I’ll ask my white girlfriend to drive if I notice a lot of cops are out. I try not to wear hats or hoodies at night for fear of looking too much like a black male and therefore, “too suspicious.” Of course I can’t say this is why I was pulled over. I can’t say that the officers in question thought I was male. But I can say this isn’t really something my queer white friends have ever complained to me about. When I talk about it, it’s not really an experience they relate to or a fear that they have every time they get into a car to leave somewhere late at night. They don’t know why it’s such a big deal for them to not do any of the stupid and obviously illegal things they tend to do if I’m the one behind the wheel.
I have nowhere near the stature of Questlove but I’m not a small woman. If I’m wearing a hoodie or some other sort of clothing that puts my gender up for discussion (more than it already usually is despite the watermelons strapped to my chest) I try to do things that won’t scare people. I walk a reasonable distance away and if I’m walking faster than they are, I make some sort of noise before reaching them so they won’t be surprised. Actual black males have some sort of safety net in their maleness because honestly, a black male of my size is most likely faster and stronger than a black woman of my size (for example: me). If my lack of maleness is revealed, my safety net disappears. I’m not afraid to say that when I’m alone late at night, I would rather they be afraid of me than angry at me. As a black male, I might threaten their safety but as a gender non-conforming black lesbian, I might threaten their ideals. Questlove:
Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.
I think a lot of males lack the awareness that Questlove so poignantly speaks about. Male privilege allows them to carry on with the knowledge that they’re one of the “good ones” that won’t attack women and so whatever hangups anyone else has is their problem to deal with. Why should men have to respect other people’s possible fear? And why should black men have to respect that AND someone else’s possible racism? Rather than being upset that this happens, maybe this will give more men of color the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of women, to come to terms with the fact that some of those women aren’t racist and crossing the street from them The Individual. They’re crossing the street to get away from Men because Men attack women, queers, and trans* people.
Hasn’t Trayvon taught us (again) that even men aren’t safe if they’re black? That they also invoke a sense of irrational anger just by their presence? Haven’t I been wrong this entire time? I mean, how silly am I that I thought by passing as a black male, I’d ruled out all threats. The sad truth is I have no identity to retreat to. Unless you’re a straight white cis male, you have a reason to be scared. I’m not saying that you should be, I’m just being honest about the fact that I constantly calculate the potential threats of situations. And if you think I don’t have good reason to, you’re wrong. Because when you’re black, it goes beyond never feeling truly safe. You don’t even have the right to protect yourself.
These fears and reactions have been ingrained in us from the moment we were born into a homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, etcist society that makes no qualms about letting us know we’re not safe and furthermore, not deserving of safety. I know it doesn’t feel great to watch the process of someone identifying you as a threat but I’m not the kind of person who’s going to get mad at someone trying to peaceably keep themselves out of harm’s way. Because if something happens, that’s exactly what everyone is going to ask. Why didn’t YOU do something? AKA why didn’t Trayvon just run home? AKA why was your skirt so short? How mad can I get when someone crosses the street or walks a little faster when they notice my presence when I know that if my girlfriend/sister/friend was walking home late at night by herself, I’d want her to do the same thing? Questlove:
Inside I cried. But if I cried at every insensitive act that goes on in the name of safety, I’d have to be committed to a psych ward. I’ve just taught myself throughout the years to just accept it and maybe even see it as funny. But it kept eating at me…It’s a bajillion thoughts, all of them self-depreciating voices slowly eating my soul away.
If feelings get hurt in the pursuit of safety, I’m ok with that. Sometimes our hurt feelings are incidentals. But Trayvon Martin should not have been collateral damage for one man’s pursuit of something he already had and something I’ll likely never feel: Safety.