Atmy local off-price department store a few months back, I rummaged through a small clearance rack for a new cell phone case. The options here, brand-name items at a discount, are often disorganized. There were full-priced cases mixed with sale ones with little regard to what type of phone or model they belonged to. Some cases hung haphazardly on their respective hooks, some no longer hung at all. I picked up a clear, hard plastic case with a delicate rose print that did not have the necessary label, just a “$5.99” sticker hanging by a thin clear t-shaped tag.
Since no store associate was a qualified cell phone case connoisseur, the easiest solution was to try it out on my bare cell-phone. I began to nudge the edges of my phone into the case’s upper left and right corners when I thought of the store cameras above me. I pictured the color of my skin on a pixelated TV screen, how a blurred angle could tell the wrong story. I stopped and kept my cell phone out of my pocket in case that looked like an item as well. I piled my phone, the unlabeled phone case, and three other cases in my arms in full view as I headed to the front registers. When my turn came, I asked my cashier, a woman whose tag read ‘Pamela’, if I could try out the cases in front of her.
“Sorry to hold things up, I would have done it earlier, but…” I trailed off as Pamela smiled and nodded knowingly. Pamela was black, meaning without divulging any personal history, we shared the possibility of an unnecessary negative experience. Pamela understood without my saying, why even as a paying customer who has never shoplifted so much as a candy bar, I would feel the need to request her surveillance while figuring out if I could make use of a product in the store. Though the line of soccer moms was growing behind me, Pamela chatted excitedly comparing the phone case options, complimenting me on my taste, so that, for a moment, I was a little more at ease.
To be black in America is more trying than walking on eggshells. It is more dangerous than skating on thin ice. Those two challenges entail skillful precision in the former case and a known sense of precarity in the latter. Being black in America is walking down the same sidewalk where other people move along peacefully, but knowing that the cracks in between might open up when you alone are passing and swallow you whole. It is your country willing you to believe your situation is normal when the possibilities of you falling are endless.
It does not seem to matter that I follow the speed limits while driving to a fault. I still flinch when I see a police car, my heart races, and I start questioning anything I could be doing wrong. When I ride my bike down the quiet, scenic roads near the picturesque lake in the suburb where I live, I tense as I approach any and every white pedestrian. I mind my speed, make eye contact, and force myself to smile, coaching them to believe: “I’m friendly. I am like you. I might stand out in your neighborhood, but I promise I am not a threat.” To be black in America is to be born into the trauma of the constant threat of police violence, conforming, and self-censoring to navigate that unfair sidewalk and avoid the traps.
Someone might say I was overly cautious that day in the discount department store, but that someone is most likely not black. Maybe I could have tried on the case within ten seconds, realized it did not fit and moved on with my day. Maybe. But perhaps the store’s security personnel would have come over to check that I was not stealing, took my anxious silence as an admission of guilt, and called the cops. Perhaps a store associate would not ask me anything at all but would have called the police immediately if they perceived me as a “threat.” Maybe the police officers who arrived would see me as “insubordinate,” “argumentative,” or “aggressive,” and I would not be home writing this today.
Over one hundred fifty years after the abolition of slavery in America, white people still wield the power to end black lives for no reason at all and have no repercussions. Amy Cooper understood that power when she called the police on a harmless Central Park bird-watcher who politely asked her to follow the park rules and leash her dog in the bird-watching area. When the bird-watcher, Christian Cooper (no relation), began recording their interaction, Amy Cooper threatened to call the police and tell them, “There is an African-American man threatening my life.” She followed through on that evil threat, capitalizing on the fact that police interactions with innocent black people often result in black deaths. Amy Cooper went so far as to feign fear and breathlessness in her voice during this police call as though Christian Cooper, who remained calm and still, was actively pursuing her, all while strangling the dog she claimed the “African-American” was also threatening.
Just a few months before, a twenty-five-year-old in South Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery, who happened to be jogging while black, was shot to death by two white neighbors, one a former police officer. The murderers thought as Arbery jogged by their front yard, that he “looked like a man suspected of several break-ins in the area.” Ahmaud Arbery was visibly black. That is why two white men chose to end his life that day.
On March 13th, Louisville, Kentucky police killed Breonna Taylor for sleeping while black. Shortly after midnight, police entered her home on a “no-knock” warrant as part of an investigation into drugs that they never found on her property. The award-winning EMT who aspired to become a nurse died after being shot at least eight times.
When black people’s safety is not at risk for bird-watching or jogging, or sleeping, America denies us the right to breathe. On May 25th, George Floyd, a well-loved black man, was arrested for allegedly trying to use a $20 counterfeit bill while shopping at a grocery store. During that arrest by an entire gang of police officers, a white officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, pressing him onto the pavement. Onlookers begged the officers to release Floyd. Floyd himself begged to breathe until he became unresponsive and limp.
There are too many more. I am ashamed to say I cannot remember all of the names of innocent black people who have lost their lives at the hands of white hate in recent years. And if I stare at the page long enough, I might start to imagine my own name printed there like a premonition. Throughout my time being born and raised in America, there has rarely been a moment when I am not aware or wary of my race. I am not black because thick lips and golden brown skin appear to be trendy at the moment or because I decided to be. I am black because I am. My blackness is evident and loud. It is one of the first things you see when you look at me. And it could one day lead to my death.
When I heard that black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans, the first word that came to mind was “genocide.” Of course, that word defines a deliberate killing of a particular group. But, we are suffering more in this pandemic due to a lack of access to diagnostic testing and medical treatment. Still, when I combine the coronavirus death rates with the caution necessary to make a store purchase or bird-watch or jog, it all feels very deliberate. If in 2020 we still cannot breathe, aren’t we already dying? It seems no matter where we turn or how we try to thrive, the ghost of some overseer lurks in the corner, watching, waiting.
Source : Medium