Yes, I know some of you don’t think that racial preference affects us anymore; but it does. There is a reason that I have been pulled over for speeding more than once but I have yet to get a ticket. It might be partly because I am a woman, and because I am respectful to the police officers, but it is also because of the color of my skin.
When I walk down a street, usually people make eye contact with me. Some people smile or nod a greeting. People often approach me if they have a question; even total strangers. Elderly people and children have asked me for help. No one seems threatened by me or afraid of me. I know that my face and my manner of dress are more relaxed and friendly than some, so I suppose that is partially responsible. I think my skin color and my sex also play a role though. For some reason, white women are perceived to be safer and more law abiding than men or people of color. I think it’s an unjust bias.
When I observe my husband walk down a street, people respond differently. It is subtle, but it is a consistent difference. He is well groomed and is often smiling. There is nothing about him that should be intimidating or put anyone off. So why do fewer people make eye contact or smile at him? Why don’t people approach him to ask questions as they do me? Maybe it is partly how he carries himself. Men tend to walk with more confidence and authority. Perhaps he isn’t looking for eye contact as I do. Or perhaps it’s simply because he is a young black man, and people have a misconception about him that makes them wary and afraid.
I didn’t realize how prevalent this issue is in my mind until a few months ago when I bought my husband a light grey sweatshirt to wear on evening walks. I know he prefers dark colors, but I intentionally chose a light one. When he asked me why, I replied without thinking “So you won’t get shot.” At his puzzled look I explained further. “I realized the other day that I felt intimidated by a black guy who was walking toward me on the sidewalk. There was nothing intimidating about him, but he was wearing all dark colors and a big necklace and he had his hood up. Somewhere in my brain I associate that style of dress with gang culture and I experienced a fear bias based on his clothing. Although I realize it’s not rational, it’s likely that others have a similar train of thought. If we are out walking and something goes down nearby, I want you to look as un-thuggish as possible so that the cops don’t shoot you before they realize you weren’t involved.”
So, for my peace of mind, he often wears the light colored sweatshirt when we go for evening walks in the city. He also keeps his pants above his butt and does not wear big jewelry. It’s not fair that a stereotype dictate how anyone dresses. It’s not fair that I assume he is in more danger if he wears dark colors. It’s not fair that I have no confidence in the desire of the law enforcement officers to protect my husband should he be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is not and never has been a criminal, but I am still afraid for him. Maybe my attitude is unfair, but so is the fact that young unarmed black men keep getting gunned down.
It’s time to end the stereotype of young men of color as thugs. It’s time to end the fear-mongering that comes from media portraying criminals, thugs, drug dealers and armed gunmen as primarily people of color. It’s time to see people as people regardless of their skin color and ethnic heritage. It’s time catch ourselves when we look at people differently and choose to see them for who they are, not how they look. It’s time to acknowledge our white privilege and see what we can do about changing it.
You see, my sons won’t share my white privilege. They might not be as dark as their daddy is, but they won’t have my Caucasian complexion either. I don’t want others to be afraid of them if they wear dark colors. I don’t want them to be perceived by their color instead of who they are. I don’t want to be afraid that if they do something stupid during their teen years (as almost all of us have) that they will be shot dead instead of tried in a court of law in accordance with their rights. Ultimately, I don’t want to be afraid that I will end up joining the families of Michael Brown and Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin in mourning the tragic and unjust death of my son.
Regardless of your nationality, this is your issue. It affects all of us. Please be aware. Please speak out. Please educate. Please join me in the effort to make this society a safer place for all our children.