If one has any understanding of the lived experience of Black and Brown people in the United States, compliance, my friend, is not a strategy for self-preservation. It is a stamp of approval for systematic racism and White supremacy’s violations of Black and Brown people’s human and civil rights.
When it comes to race relations, the question “Where are you from” is one question that many feel we must circumscribe whenever the urge to ask it emerges. There are many people who, when asked this question, feels like the questioner is on a quest to draw attention to their otherness. Sadly, this feeling is often the truth.
Of course, the otherizing of people is not uniquely a black/white issue. It cuts across all “racial” groups. It is likewise a black/black issue, for instance. My wife was asked this very question last summer by individuals from my country Grenada at a social gathering. The individuals thought that she was “originally” [whatever that may mean in this context] from Grenada. “I am from Brooklyn,” she replied to the question, but the response to her answer was not good. We were both horrified by it. “So you are African American” one gentle man blurted out. “Well,” he continues, “I guess then we don’t have anything to talk about.”
I was no doubt taken aback by his response. Not only was it rude and disrespectful, but there exists a stunning level of ignorance underlining his response. Is there really nothing that one could talk about with someone from a different social and cultural background? In my view, to assent to such a view is to shut down one’s mind to rationality. In fact, it points to a sense of xenophobia. Contrary to the individual’s response, one can and often does learn much from interacting with people from different social and cultural backgrounds. It is a healthy action to engage in. Sadly, however, these individuals are not the only Grenadians to express such ideas. If my experience is any gauge, there are many within the Grenadian community, home and in the diaspora, who display stunning levels of prejudice towards African Americans. This dislike for African Americans, of course, did not come from nowhere. It is as a result to White Supremacy, and, as intended, it is beneficial to maintaining its racist social structure.
“What’s up with African Americans,” I was asked by a Grenadian friend during my last visit to the island. Ambiguous as this question was, I was expected to have an answer. Of course, my friend had his own understanding of whatever the issue his question was supposed to be addressing, but for some reason was interested in hearing mine. After breaking down what he meant by the question he posed, it became clear that the question was predicated upon the issues surrounding Black and Brown bodies that have been abused and killed in the United States by the hands of the police.
The question, however, is not a concern for African Americans’ lives. To my friend, women like Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, and men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, to name a few of the lives lost due to police brutality, are responsible for their own demise. “Why do they need to challenge the police,” he asked me, blaming the victims. In other words, why do they have to question the reason for their stop or arrest? It became clear that my friend and others holding similar views are either ignorant to the facts or are purposely disregarding the facts because of their prejudice. Not only do police officers trained to de-escalate confrontation with civilians, they are to assure that deadly force is a last resort only if the officer’s or officers’ lives are in danger. However, many of these Black and Brown human beings were unarmed when they were gunned down by the police. As the Mapping Police Violence project reported, 32% of black people killed were unarmed. Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott, for example, were gunned down while walking and running away from police. Walter Scott was shot in his back. Moreover, the report informed us that, in 14 cities, 100% of the people shot by police were African Americans.
With these facts highlighted, it seems clear to me that informing my friend’s position is the belief in compliance. If these people had just closed their mouth, everything would have been alright. This position, of course, is not unique to my friend. Many Grenadians and indeed many Caribbean people hold beliefs about African Americans that eerily resemble that of racist White Americans. These beliefs are mostly informed by stereotypes maintained and promoted by the White Racist American culture. African Americans are lazy, they are criminals and they are all on welfare, to mention a few.
To hold the view expressed in my friend’s question, means to reject basic truths about the American society as it relates to Black and White social relationship. It is to deny the lived experience of Black and Brown people in a White Racist dominant culture. Black and Brown bodies were treated as property of White America during slavery, and have constantly been rejected as part of the White mainstream culture after gaining their emancipation. The stereotypes that inform my friend’s understanding of African Americans exists because of the bigoted and racist relationships White America has and continues to have with Black America.
Despite these historical truths, many Caribbean people it seems come to realize that racism exists only after migrating to the United States and experiencing it for themselves. At this point they realize that to White Supremacy, Black and Brown people are all the same, irrespective of their cultural background. Of course, racism is not unknown to the Caribbean. We are aware that the people who occupied the top societal strata in the Caribbean are the light-skinned to almost white-skinned people. In fact, there are many Caribbean people who have and many who are continuing to challenge White Supremacy, at home and abroad. So one may be tempted to ask: Why are there so many Caribbean people still harboring such prejudicial views of African Americans? Although there is no easy answer to this question, some maintain that because Caribbean people are living in an environment where the population is mostly Black and Brown making the truth about White Supremacy less noticeable and, thus, mostly ignored. Indeed, unlike many or most African Americans experiences, I was not raised in a home where race was a common topic of discussion. My parents did not have to be worried that upon leaving home for school or the playground, I would be stopped by police officers on the basis of my skin color and may not make it back home alive.
Race, of course, is a human construct, and despite my limited understanding of it, I understand that there is a common connection to us all as human beings. That is humanity. Every human being needs dignity, and to ask a people, White or Black, to comply with their abuser, is to ask that they give up their dignity, their humanity. If my friend meant to articulate any notion of life preservation in his question, it seems that he has not spent enough time thinking through his position. In an environment of hostility, what is the efficacy of compliance? It has none. Compliance will not remedy the situation but will strengthen the opposite.
The call to noncompliance is not a call for individuals to resist police officers. Certainly not! As shown above many Black and Brown bodies are violated while trying to escape police brutality. Yet many Caribbean people to whom I have spoken have the false notion that most or all of the Black and Brown bodies violated by police officers were resisting arrest.
Compliance is the expectation of Black and Brown people. It does not matter which part of the world you are from. As African Americans, the color of your skin designates you to the same position in a White dominant culture, where White Supremacy is concerned. Compliance is expected from the individual to the collective. White individuals have the privilege to contest their arrests, for instance. Black and Brown people don’t. Despite being cliche, it is true that if Tamir Rice was a White child, he most certainly would have been alive today. If Sandra Bland was a white women, her family would still be enjoying her company today. Thus, my friend, your question should never have been “What’s up with African Americans.” It should have been concerned with police officers who think that they are above the law? It should have been concerned with a justice system that seeks to protect these criminal police officers, while punishing the victims? We should question White Privilege and stand with African Americans to demand social justice. In the wake of celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the African-American activists, humanitarian and leader of Civil Rights Movement, his words that “Injustice anywhere is a treat to justice everywhere,” should mean something to us.
We need to stand with groups like Black Lives Matter, who have, in my view, diagnosed the problem and are demanding solutions to the problem. Allow me to echo the words of the legendary reggae signer Peter Tosh, “I don’t want no peace, I need Equal Rights and Justice.” #BlackLivesMatter.