Living While Black
White friends and colleagues sometimes wonder why Black people are so affected when a stranger across the country is attacked by police, vigilantes, or a fellow resident.
The news is upsetting to everyone, of course. But not to the point where it affects their work or their mood. It may seem irrational to many white people.
Now, I’m not qualified to explain the psychological/sociological/anthropological reasons for this phenomenon. But I understand it. When these things happen, I feel it in the pit of my stomach. And the last couple weeks have been rough.
Sixteen-year-old Ralph Yarl in Kansas City, Missouri, was shot—twice—by a man whose doorbell he mistakenly rang. When I saw that on the news, my thoughts went back to when my son was about Ralph’s age.
He was into photography, and to experiment with light, he was going out to take photos in the middle of the night. He hadn’t told me, but his younger sister spilled the beans. My belly started to churn. When he woke up, I confronted him about it. He admitted that he’d been out taking photos at 2am in Wellesley. “What were you thinking!” I yelled.
He wasn’t thinking all the things I was thinking. In fact, he thought I was being ridiculous. There was no law against taking photos at night. He looked it up! He could go where he pleased, he said.
I unfolded a possible scenario for him. A Wellesley resident calls the police. “There’s a Black man outside. He has something in his hand. It’s glinting in the light. It could be a gun.” Armed police arrive, adrenaline pumping, surprising my son. As they slam him to the ground, he tries to explain: “I looked up the law! I have the right to be here!” A mother’s nightmare.
Then there was the incident in Newton on Marathon Monday. A couple of running groups of color were gathered to cheer on their members who were racing. A few of them were stepping onto the road to run alongside their friends when they passed, as many supporters do. In this case, the marathon organizers called in the Newton police to enforce the rule against crossing the rope barrier. A bicycle blockade of uniformed officers appeared in front of their tent, casting a chill over their joy and preventing them from connecting with their friends as they entered the final stretch of their big day.
I can only imagine the fear that the Black supporters must have felt as they looked at the stone faces of the police, suddenly lined up in front of them and only them. Every one of them must have been thinking of all who have been policed, tried, and punished in seconds for being Black and going about their lives. The way I still feel my heart race when a police car is behind me while I’m driving, nearly 8 years after the death of Sandra Bland in Texas.
If you are wondering why your colleagues of color once again have an unhealthy pall on their spirit, this is why. If we seem overly impacted by this kind of news, it’s because we know it could happen to us, or someone near and dear to us.