Sunday, May 06, 2012

Guest Post - Frightening Black Men

A friend wrote this about her experience and thoughts about racism in the United States.  She makes an excellent point: "I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too."

I am a women of African origins and have lived  20+ years in the United States.  Over the years, one thing has been patently clear; living in the United States as an African American women is way easier than living here as an African American man. 

At some point in the past few years, I decided to sign an on-line petition through a website called change.org.  I receive periodic updates on petitions being circulated, like the one earlier this year on a $5 per month account fee Bank of America wanted to charge or something like that.  The petitions don't often catch my attention.  While I don't think Bank of America should start charging a new account fee, honestly, it isn't going to change my life one way or another.  So why don't I just un-subscribe?  Because of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. 

Recently, I received a petition pushing for the arrest of the black boy's killer.  Trayvon had been returning by foot from a convenience store near his father's house in Florida with some Skittles candy in hand when he was shot by a man who felt Trayvon was acting suspiciously.  More than 1 million people signed the petition and there has been national attention on this case, on the NRA-backed law that allowed the state not to immediately arrest someone who clearly killed an innocent boy, and I hope on an underlying issue: why a 17-year-old black boy is automatically considered suspicious?

I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too.  Trayvon would not have been shot if he was a white boy.  I don't think Oscar Grant from Oakland California would have been killed by the young, scared white BART officer if he had not been black because he just wouldn't have been considered as threatening.

So how do we change a culture that considers it acceptable to be afraid of black men and that to shoot them when you are afraid? I genuinely believe that Trayvon's killer was afraid. I don't know for certain but we need to start by challenging the existing paradigm that allows people like Travyon's killer to walk free.

A childhood friend of mine is from south India and, like many south Indians, has very dark skin. As he became "follicularly challenged" at a relatively young age, he shaves his head.  With this combination, in the United States, he is often mistakenly identified as African American and so has become sadly familiar with how people react to black men. My friend kindly shared my first apartment in an upper middle class neighborhood in the university town we were living in when I needed a roommate to pay the mortgage.  He told me that many days, when he was walking up the hill on his way home, white people would cross to the other side of road to avoid the potential danger that he represented to them as a perceived black man.  He said his heart would sink every time this happened.  Imagine how it would feel to think that people were afraid of you every time you walked out the door? 

Change has to start somewhere and while I hope that the change will eventually be in people's hearts, it needs to start with no tolerance for unjust laws and and for people who hide their racist actions behind them.

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