Black men are under attack. There may have been a time when that statement might have sounded like an exaggeration, but with headlines about men of color being shot, killed and falsely accused of crimes becoming almost daily occurrences, the reality of that declaration slowly begins to sink in. While women of color are not exempt from experiencing these same atrocities, brothers are becoming victims at a more alarming rate.
It all boils down to fear. Since Reconstruction, the African-American man has been painted as the “big, black brute,” an excessively violent, strong and sexualized abomination that poses a threat to white America. This stereotype is at the root of many of the racial discords we see in the news today involving men of color.
I’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly when I became aware of how my blackness could impact how I’m perceived by those outside of my community, but the fact that it does have an impact has shaped the way I move through the world. It’s sad, but I, like so many other black men, don’t want to become the next RIP hashtag.
While I’ll never let outside forces change the core of who I am, I have to admit that I’ve made both conscious and subconscious adjustments in my behavior just to try to ensure that I make it home to my family safely every night. Although there are countless stories of brothers like Philando Castile and Charles Kinsey who said and did the right things, to no avail, here are a few of my own personal mantras that, for better or for worse, have allowed me to appear less “dangerous” to white people as a black man.
I Dress My Age as Much as Possible
The only downside to “Black don’t crack” is that when dressed down, I could pass for someone almost half my 39 years (OK, maybe not 21, but 29-ish). That’s part of the reason I typically don’t shave off my beard often and wear button-up shirts and slacks most of the time. It’s just as much protective presentation as it is personal style. I feel most vulnerable when coming home from the gym because in basketball shorts, I can easily “fit the description” of any black male. While my white counterparts may not have to be as concerned with casual dress and being perceived as “presentable,” as a person of color, I don’t always have that luxury.
I Don’t Walk Behind (White) Women After Dark
This really isn’t necessarily race-specific because, as a rule, I try to avoid walking behind any woman after sunset. The reason is, I understand that just my being a man—black, white or other—can be intimidating to a woman. Add in a desolate sidewalk and I imagine her nervousness increasing tenfold. Whenever I find myself in this scenario, I make a concerted effort to walk in the street and try to get ahead of the woman so that she has the luxury of keeping me in sight as opposed to having a pair of footsteps looming behind her. This personal space is as much for her safety as it is my own, because the last thing I need is a scared white woman pointing the finger at me.
I Call Everyone “Sir” and “Ma’am”
My mother taught me to use these terms as a sign of respect. Whenever interacting with police, I deploy them just as I would with an elder. While I’m doubtful that simply saying “sir” or “ma’a”m will ultimately save me from being arrested, put in a choke hold or shot, my hope is that by addressing authority figures as such, I will at least set the tone for cooler heads to prevail. Plus, you have to give respect to try to get respect, right?
I Smile at Strangers in Tight Places
One place where I immediately become fully aware of my blackness is in a cramped space, like an elevator. There’s an unspoken tension that exists when a person of color enters and the occupant or occupants are white. While I don’t go out of my way to make eye contact, in the event that I do, I smile and give the person his or her space to signify that I’m no threat. I might even mindlessly look at my phone to illustrate that I’m not focused on anyone. If we happen to get off on the same floor, I maintain a safe distance so that the person doesn’t feel as if I’m following him or her.
I Use (Proper) Language as the Great Equalizer
While I don’t give much credence to the idea that people can talk “black” or talk “white,” I have no problem displaying my education through my words. I don’t make a habit of using the n-word, especially in mixed company, and I speak proper English in public for the most part. Ultimately, no matter how I look or what I’m wearing, I use my words to make the greatest impact on those who don’t know me so that they can get a glimpse of my worth and intelligence and why my life matters.