April 24, 2018

because white men can’t police their imagination

Last week, at an event at the public library, I overheard a conversation between two well-meaning people who were talking about the arrest of two unarmed Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks; these people proclaimed they were shocked” that something like this could happen, that someone who is the manager of a coffee shop could be so biased.”

The truth is that this situation was not shocking and that it was not just the actions of one individual: Black bodies have always been criminalized just for existing in public spaces, and this situation is part of a broader systemic racism that is bigger than just one person. In a recent piece in Philadelphia Magazine, Ernest Owens sums it up quite succinctly:

What happened at Starbucks is more than just two innocent Black men being arrested, but the inevitable outcome of an unchecked system of racial bias on the part of local law enforcement.

Bryan Washington’s reflection upon the normalcy of this kind of unwelcoming and hostile behavior, and why it’s disconcerting that many non-Black people are shocked at this event, is worth reading:

What’s especially jarring, honestly, is that something so commonplace to black men — enough that many, if not most, of our regular routines simply accommodate the possibility of this sort of occurrence, the same way you might pack an umbrella or a jacket if you anticipated the remote chance of rain — is news to whole swathes of this country. As tidy as this would all be if it were a Starbucks issue, or a coffee shop issue, it is an empathy issue. So the question becomes one of occupation: Who is allowed to take up space in this country unassailed? […]

You learn very quickly that it doesn’t matter if you set Knausgaard or The Bell Jar or the Times on your coffee table — you are black. You are Other. Which gives you a couple of options. Continue occupying these spaces, doing the things that you’re looking to do; or acquiesce to the incorrigible shadow of white supremacy (it’s always shifting). Anything in between would be interpreted as the former.

Teju Cole’s thoughts about the Starbucks incident and its aftermath are also worth reflecting upon:

We are not safe even in the most banal place. We are not equal even in the most common circumstances. We are always five minutes away from having our lives upended. Racism is not about actively doing stuff to you all the time—it’s also about passively keeping you on tenterhooks. We are always one sour white away from having the cops arrive. […]

This is why I always say you can’t be a black flâneur. Flanerie is for whites. For blacks in white terrain, all spaces are charged. Cafes, restaurants, museums, shops. Your own front door. This is why we are compelled, instead, to practice psychogeography. We wander alert, and pay a heavy psychic toll for that vigilance. Can’t relax, black.

What does it mean to always feel watched, to always feel like you don’t belong and are not welcome? What kind of trauma does it leave in your body to always be on edge, to always wonder when your life will be threatened because the frailty of someone who is afraid of you or hates you based on nothing but the color of your skin?

As Claudia Rankine says succinctly, beautifully, but heart-breakingly:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

It doesn’t have to be this way, but anyone who is shocked that it is this way, right now, has been willfully ignorant. That ignorance makes everything worse.