May 29, 2020 at 04:44PM
At some point you learn to speak clearly and slowly, to widen your eyes a bit, perhaps to smile, in situations where the underlying danger of everyday existence races to the surface like an air bubble in murky water. Of course you do this with law enforcement, at a traffic stop or in a random encounter on the street, but you do this also in the most anodyne situations—with the train conductor when your ticket won’t scan, with the concierge at an apartment building, with the random white stranger who suddenly wants to know what you’re doing, where you’ve just come from, where you think you’re going. You learn to perform harmlessness, not as a way of selling yourself out—though it often feels like that—but as an attempt at heading off a conflict that seems to always be brewing. You learn—or, at least I, a black, cisgender man, learned—that there will be moments, random and unbidden, where to save your life you must convince a stranger that you are in some amorphous way good. And at the same time you learn that it probably will not make a difference.
This week began for many with footage filmed by a black man of a white woman, Amy Cooper, frantically calling the police on him and alleging that he was threatening her. The black man, Christian Cooper, unrelated to Amy, can be heard speaking clearly and calmly as she constricts her voice in panic, performed or actually felt. As outrage over the video spread, much was made of Christian’s tone, which to many was a successful performance of being non-threatening. And when video footage of Christian surfaced showing him to be a bespectacled, fit, and erudite gay bird watching enthusiast, much was made of that, too. One thread of the response seemed, reasonably, to focus on the fact that Christian Cooper is attractive and interesting, a hero in a story that got off to an ugly start. Another thread, however, seemed to get stuck on the apparent dissonance of someone like him being seen as threatening. How could someone so “respectable” get mixed up in a situation like this?
Because it doesn’t matter if you’re respectable.
The week is ending with news of a third day of uprising in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd, another black man whose appearance, presentation, and motives have been scoured for clues as to how this could happen, how he could end up with a police officer’s knee on his neck for several minutes until he cried out in anguish to the spirit of his deceased mother and then died. Had he not been respectable enough? Had he not widened his eyes enough? Was he not good enough to live? As always happens in these situations, some legitimately asked the questions, a familiar mix of bad faith arguments and the bone deep misunderstanding of structural oppression. Surely he must have done something to provoke this, the commenters say. This is why you always cooperate with the police, they cluck. And sometimes you muster the energy to retort that it seems that a knee on a neck doesn’t provide a clear path to a cooperative encounter. But other times you don’t; you just read it with widening eyes, knowing what you’ve always known, which is that there is danger everywhere.
While reporting on the uprising in Minneapolis, CNN’s Omar Jimenez, a black man, was arrested by Minnesota State Police live on air. Jimenez spoke clearly and calmly, he didn’t make any sudden movements, he showed his media badge. His performance of goodness was so proficient it was being broadcast on international television. It did not matter. He was taken into custody, along with his producer and cameraman. Of course there was public outcry—he was just doing his job, and he spoke so calmly and he was so cooperative. Surely that makes a difference.
On one hand, none of those factors make a difference. On the other hand, however, Jimenez is still alive. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this was a successful encounter with potentially dangerous forces. It is a fool’s errand to try to work out the arithmetic of how an incident with underlying racial bias begins or ends. To attempt to do so is to grant credence to the flawed logic that says a man like Jimenez or Floyd or Cooper, a woman like Sandra Bland or Breonna Taylor, a child like Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, is inherently dangerous to a system that has been designed to kill them since before they were born. James Baldwin, in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” writes, “White people hold the power… and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared. Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it… He must be ‘good’ not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel.”
After Jimenez was released from police custody, he returned to the air and spoke with CNN’s John King. King told Jimenez, “You were incredibly calm and professional throughout.” As if continuing a line of thought, the anchor added, “There can be confusion in these cases. You need to give the officers some grace.” King closed the segment by assuring Jimenez that they would continue to “try to find out exactly what happened.” As if there is some deeper mystery at play here.
You learn, at some point, how to perform being non-threatening and you learn that often it matters less how well you perform and more whether the audience for said performance believes it. Or wants to believe it. Or is in the mood to believe it. Or woke up that morning and made a conscious decision not to believe it. And you think: “If it’s futile anyway, if I am powerless over the reception that I get, what does it matter how I approach the world?”
And there’s a freedom in that, for it allows you to prioritize your own voice over the scolding one that speaks nothing but fear. It affirms that the voice asking to see your papers, or calling those in Minneapolis “thugs,” or shouting out a warning “Move along now!” does not belong to you. It belongs to individuals who have been made minuscule and sharp by their addictions to white supremacy and systems of oppressions that are ambivalent about your goodness. In the end, these people and the systems they function in and control and are slaves to do not care if you are subservient or loud; they do not care if you are cooperative or resist; they do not care if you have a good job and qualifications and a license that says you live in this neighborhood and a huge smile and wide eyes. They only want to destroy you. And you never quite know for sure who “they” are. Until it’s too late to matter.