This post was inspired by the events taking place in Baltimore, MD after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. I wrote it after reading so many posts on social media bashing the rioters for tearing up and burning their own city. I saw post after post begging the oppressed to be peaceful and respectful because you know that will save your life. It was initially drafted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. I’m sharing it now in hopes that tempers have settled a bit and we can have a “real talk” moment.
I followed all the rules.
I worked hard in school.
I kept my hair neatly groomed.
I said “yes, sir” when speaking to a police officer.
I was always 15 minutes early.
I wore clothes that were approved by the majority.
I encouraged my peers to pull up their pants and just follow the rules to avoid suspicion.
I was docile and polite even when I was uncomfortable.
I was seen, but not heard.
I believed in the American Dream.
And then something changed…
I can’t really remember the straw that broke the camel’s back…
Maybe it was the day I saw “Only Niggers Want Affirmative Action” spray-painted on the Diag of my beloved alma mater.
Or maybe it was the day I sat in class and listened to a group of young white girls lament about the Vagina Monologues focusing solely on women of color that year. As they sat there whining about being excluded from auditioning that year, I remember thinking “but, you’ve had the full cast every other year.”
Maybe it was the first time a white classmate told me they didn’t see my color and that I’m not that kind of Black person.
Or every single time someone told me I was “so articulate and well-spoken.”
Maybe it was when I chose to grow out my chemically straightened hair and wear my kinky curls with pride.
Or maybe it was the first time I was on campus during an Michigan versus Ohio State football game and found myself legitimately scared of drunk white people flipping out over a freaking football game.
Maybe it was when I looked at my husband and said “Trayvon Martin was an honors student on the way to greatness. Michael Brown was starting college the next week. Why do they keep killing “good” kids?;” and he looked back at me and said “None of that matters at all. What matters is they were not in the midst of committing a crime and even if they were deadly force was not necessary.”
Or maybe it was the time a white classmate in my graduate program mistook me for another Black woman in the program, even though this same classmate spent an entire semester sitting next to me in class and I even peer reviewed her work.
Maybe it was when I was pregnant and both White and Black people shook their heads at my belly while I rode MARTA. Only seeing my baby face and completely ignoring my rolling briefcase that would’ve let them know I’m not a teen mom.
Or every time I dared to read the comments section on an article about people of color.
Maybe it was the first time that I truly realized that I have to be twice as good to get half as much because institutional racism is alive and well.
Or maybe it was when I held my 4 month old son and listened to George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Maybe it was sparked by the look of fear on white people’s faces when my husband walks into a room despite his respectable button-up shirt and tie.
Or maybe it was the first time I saw a young white boy ignore my barely 18 month old child’s attempts to play. I watched him look at his parents for approval and then felt their attempts to ignore my piercing stare as I affixed a smile on my face to be polite.
Maybe it was every single time I found myself defending our first generation minority students from the disdain of colleagues who feel they are too good to teach them.
Or the fact that I can no longer sleep until my husband is safely home due to anxiety.
I refuse to buy into the politics that say if I wear my hair a certain way I’ll be respected.
I no longer believe my degrees shield me from the disdain of White America.
I no longer see police officers as protectors. They are now the people I fear.
I no longer believe in fairytales.
I no longer believe in good behavior or respectability politics saving lives.
So, I will no longer tell anyone that they must be respectful and peaceful when they’ve been wronged.
Respectability politics did not stop the government from terrorizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Respectability politics did not prevent Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. from being arrested outside his own home for nothing more than being Black.
Respectability politics did not prevent the bombing of 4 Little Girls in the 16th Street Church.
Respectability politics will not save us… it will kill us.
Kill us with its one-size fits all Black person image.
Kill us with its button-ups versus hoodies mentality.
Kill us because we won’t ask questions that we’re entitled to when stopped by the police.
Respectability politics will kill us with police bullets and batons.
Respectability politics will kill us with community division.
Respectability politics will kill us when the pressure to be perfect becomes too much and we crack.