By: Tiffany Jones
December 1, 2014
When Trayvon Martin was murdered it took me a month to unpack my emotions. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and in fear. Travyon reminded me of my brother. The 17-year-old boy wearing sweatpants and a hoodie walking home reminded me of my brother. My brother, like many athletes, wore hoodies on a consistent basis. And although my brother was a few years older than Trayvon when he died, that connection has been seared into my memory. I also remember having a conversation with my brother about the incident. We didn’t speak in depth, so I never got a true sense of his fears or concerns. However, he did tell me that he would never wear a hoodie on his head again. The risk was far too great to take.
The grand jury decision to not prosecute Darren Wilson has taken me a few days to emotionally unpack as well. After the decision was announced I was emotionally exhausted by text message exchanges with friends and frustrated with images of rioting. One of my closest friends called me. Cory is an African American man in his early thirties. He is from inner city Chicago, a city notorious for its violence. Ten of his friends were killed by the time he graduated from high school. Today Cory is a district attorney in Northern California. He wanted to talk; he was hurt; he was in pain. I could say nothing that would comfort him. We talked about how black men have to be careful about what they say and how they interact with police and with everyday people. He then asked me a very interesting question. He wanted to know how I deal with these situations being a biracial woman. He said it must be hard knowing that half of your people believe Wilson should have gotten off and that the other half believes that Wilson should have been indicted. (Of course not every person is aligned on a side according to their race, but generally speaking there is a racial divide.) I am grateful that he acknowledged my reality. No one ever does. It’s hard. But in the end I tend to side with the oppressed, the ones with no voice because that pain is immense. At the same time I understand the other side. I have to understand the other side’s opinion because the very people that I love share their sentiments.
As an aside: I note the educational attainment of my friend Cory and the men throughout this this post not to state that their education, economic status, and profession should exempt them from certain treatment; I state it to note that even the black men who have accomplished a lot in their lives and are contributing members of society endure a great deal of scrutiny on an everyday basis.
Reality is I will never fully understand what black men have to go through everyday. I can only cite my experiences as a woman of color who sometimes endures the stares, tension, and lack of ease of others. What I can tell you about are my fears. I have a black father, a biracial brother, many black male friends, and I date black men. My biggest fear is that the black men that I love, respect, cherish, and enjoy spending time with, will one day no longer be accessible to me because they were killed.
I realize that it is a sign of respect that the black men in my life tell me about their encounters with police and everyday people. Most of them don’t talk about the pain and frustration in their lives. But every once in a while, they share with me their stories and their feelings. I recall a conversation I had with a previous boyfriend. Mohammad is an African man in his late twenties. He spent his childhood in a West African country, and later moved to Maryland when he was fourteen. He is an engineer and entrepreneur, who attended a prestigious undergraduate university and has his masters. I learned that he gets pulled over by the police quite often. One day when we were spending time together he showed a flash of frustration that was odd. He hardly ever got frustrated. He had been ticketed by a police officer for speeding, even though he was driving below the speed limit. I can’t explain why, because I intellectually know that black men get pulled over a lot, but I was shocked. I wanted to know why these police officers were targeting him. He was a law-abiding citizen. It was unfair. And then I asked the same questions that I have witnessed my mother ask my father, “Please tell me you were careful with what you said and how you interacted with him.” He told me he was.
Two summers ago, a good friend of mine, spent some time with me in DC. Edward is an African-American man in his mid-twenties. He comes from a well-respected black upper middle class family in Northern California. He graduated from law school and works in the legal profession. We watched the Oscar Grant movie together, twice. He told me that he was in the bay that night. That it could have easily been him. He told me about the frustration he felt with police officers. I remember repeating the same question that I asked my ex, “Please tell me you were careful with what you said and how you interacted with them?” He responds by saying that sometimes he gets tired of enduring the questions and abuse and he feels the need to stand up.
A couple of months ago, I was standing in line to enter a jazz show with my date. Jabar is a Caribbean man in his early thirties. He grew up in the Caribbean. He attended an Ivy League institution and has obtained a bachelor’s degree in math and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. Today he is an engineer. As we stepped into line, I noticed odd behavior by the older white woman right in front of us. She looked at him, I saw fear in her eyes, and then she took a step backwards. I stood in shock for a few moments and then made a comment to him. He said he didn’t see her reaction. Later that evening he noticed that I was still bothered by what occurred. He wanted to know why it had bothered me so much. I told him that while I know that when he walks the streets he has to deal with people’s stares and fears; however, I thought I was serving as a buffer for him. I thought that because he was on a date people wouldn’t react to him so strongly because he was preoccupied. He told me that I didn’t notice the slight shifts in people’s behavior when we were out together. He then said that most of the time he blocks it out because he can’t spend too much energy thinking about it; otherwise, it would make him angry. But sometimes, he can’t help but notice. I have had multiple conversations with him about his interactions with police and everyday people. He has been the most open man with me in regards to talking about these experiences. And every time we broach the subject, I hear myself saying the same words: “Please tell me you were careful with what you said and how you interacted with them?”
This is my reality as a woman who interacts with many black men. I understand that this is not normal. It can’t be normal. My concern about their safety is not normal. But it is normal for countless women across this nation; specifically, black women and women who count a black man or boy as their son, brother, or significant other. This is unfair. It is unfair that my question to these men is “Please tell me you were careful with what you said and how you interacted with them?” My concern is focused on their reaction, not on the system. But reality is I feel powerless. I have worked in politics on public safety issues. I attend law school. I have an understanding of the system that allows me to warn black boys and men about how to interact with police and assert their rights. And yet, I still feel powerless. So I do the one thing I can. I ask the question. I tell them I know you are frustrated but I don’t want to attend your funeral. I tell them I know it’s not fair, but I selfishly want you to stay here so that I can laugh with you, cry with you, achieve our dreams together, and experience life’s greatest joys together. This is not normal. My fear is not normal. But this is my normal. And the only thing worse in this context than my normal, is to walk in the shoes of these men and boys, because it is their normal that is truly tragic.