Open Letter to America: Humanity or Racism
There’s a scene in Season One of Dear White People in which a Black student, Reggie, goes from partying with his racially diverse friends in near bliss one moment to having a gun pulled on him by police minutes later. With guns drawn, the police compel him to produce his ID to validate his claims that he is in fact a student there. The process of his reaching for his ID is marked by his visible terror–the realization shows on his face, that he could be killed at any moment.
Many Americans can watch this scene without any visceral reaction. For many, nothing terrible happened there, and Reggie should be grateful that the police didn’t kill him. They were “just doing their job”. For those who fully acknowledge the humanity of Black people, however, a lot happened in that scene.
Reggie is singled out by the police as the culprit, even though he and the white student, Addison, are equally engaged in the scuffle. Even though he is doing nothing strikingly different from his acquaintance, something makes Reggie stand out to the police. Something causes them request his ID and not that of his friend. When Reggie challenges them for singling him out, one of the officers swiftly points a gun at him.
Reggie fully anticipates his death in this moment. He knows that if he is killed, there will likely be no justice for him; that he will be maligned, his name tarnished. They will say that he had marijuana in his system. Or that he was once seen wearing a hoodie. They will find the least flattering photos of him and post them all over the media, sentencing him to death a second time.
“Reggie” may have thought about his mother in that moment. His childhood may have flashed before his eyes. He may have thought about the love of his life. While the officer held Reggie at gunpoint, threatening to banally end his life in front of his closest friends, the entire value of Reggie’s life was reduced to zero. His individual significance, his dignity, his humanity was erased. It wasn’t just that the officer would kill him, it was that he would kill him casually, and chop it up to being “in the line of duty.” Even if Reggie had committed no crime, it wouldn’t matter, because this is America. The police officer would continue his life, playing softball with his son, watching his daughter at recitals. Without consequences. Reggie’s mother, on the other hand, would have her heart shattered into a million pieces, and have to watch news reports about how the officer who killed her first-born would get paid leave and no jail time.
This scene is said to have been inspired by the experience of Charles Blow’s son, on whom a gun was pointed at the very institution where I am currently a student, Yale University.
The scene with Reggie caused me incredible grief. I sobbed like a baby. I knew that every Black person who’d had a gun pointed at them, not because they’d committed an actual crime, but because a power-tripping police officer felt the need to diminish their humanity, felt similarly to Reggie. Many who survive facing the barrel of such an officer’s gun go on to question their humanity and the value of their lives. Those who didn’t survive the barrel of the gun, must have felt this way before their lives were reduced to hashtags. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how Emmett Till felt; Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bell, Korryn Gaines, Eric Gardner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin in their final moments.
I sobbed after watching that scene because what happened to Reggie in that moment is the same thing that happens to every Black person who is harassed, interrogated, or intimidated by the police for only existing. And because there was no end to police brutality in sight. Through limited depictions of history and through film and media, America has defined what a “suspicious character” looks like. Someone who often has no distinctive characteristic other than their skin color. Like Tamir Rice, Reggie’s only crime was fitting the profile of what America has deemed a “suspicious character”. The license to subjugate these “suspicious characters”—granted to whites during the U.S. slavocracy and reinforced everyday since then—is what Sarah Braasch summoned when she called the police on Jean-Louis for being lost in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies. This license to deputize Black bodies is what she again used when she called the police on me for sleeping there.
As Zora Neale Hurston once said, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” The repeated incidents of police brutality accompanied by uncorroborated slander of the deceased, manipulated dashcam videos and blatant falsification of events consistently lead to zero punitive measures for the police involved and for those who call the police on “suspicious characters.”
Since Sandra Bell’s murder, I have been terrified of being pulled over by the police. Prior to that, there may have been a part of me that thought this violence happens primarily to Black men. However, it was clear as day then that anyone black could be pulled over for any reason under the sun and simply not go home to their family–that there would be no repercussions for the police officer who’s questionable explanation for how this person “committed suicide” would be eaten up by the public.
Many of us still cry every single time a Black life is taken by police. Some of us still become nauseous at the sight of footage of police killings of unarmed Black individuals. Most of us are not numb; each murder is the end of someone’s laughter, someone’s joy and contributions to the world; each unarmed individual slain by police once brought someone glee; each of them brought someone laughter; each of them was someone’s best friend, someone’s lover, someone’s provider and someone’s child; each of these people was loved fiercely by someone. They were the culmination of someone’s labor pains. The vast majority of these people were not drug dealers. They were not “troublemakers.” They were not “dregs of society.” They were living, breathing souls who came into this world through a womb, just like you and I.
Don’t we bear our children the same way you do? Do we not get butterflies, make love and give birth the same? When our newborns grab our fingers, do we not feel the same bliss? How did we forget? How did we come to a place of such desperation for power and resources that we actually look at someone else’s life as absolutely dispensable? Why are police officers not trained to see that someone carried this man, woman or child in their womb, borne the birth pains, and loved them? That someone is waiting for a text from this person? That someone is planning a wedding with this person? Someone is shopping for their birthday gift?
What happened to me was not a shock. It was a disappointment, but it was consistent with the racialized practices validated by the United States’ political, economic and social structure since inception. I was indeed fortunate, thanks in large part, perhaps, to the prayers of my pastors.
To the rest of the world, it is obvious what United States’ law enforcement and legal system are doing to Black lives. But to the pop-culture obsessed U.S. public, every other possible explanation is preferable to the evidenced-based documented history of racial terrorism. I’m less concerned with whether or not you’re racist—we all espouse some form or another of prejudice. I’m more concerned about whether or not you’re human enough to engage your prejudice, to acknowledge the ways even the bias you fail to recognize terrorizes those who cannot change their phenotype, ethnicity or their country of birth.
What is the posture of your heart? Do you have compassion for the suffering of others? And if you do, is that compassion limited only to those who look like you? How can any of us watch another human suffer and not feel compassion for them? If our compassion is dependent on skin color, class, sexual orientation, place of origin, then we simply need to develop our humanity.
I know that many will look at my brown skin and not see a full human worthy of life and of the best this world has to offer. Incredibly, that does not change the fact that I am fully human. Fully worthy. Fully capable. Fully magical. I will not have my humanity interrogated.
Written by Lolade Siyonbola with contributions from Reneson Jean-Louis.
Lolade Siyonbola is a poet, technologist and African Studies masters student at Yale. Author of Market of Dreams and of the forthcoming novel, The Sorcerer’s Wife, she grams and tweets at @loladeskentele
Reneson Jean-Louis is a Yale University graduate student from Miami, Florida. His focus is social ethics and he is interested in exploring the sociology of marginality and exclusivity. He grams and tweets at @roi_jeanlouis
Darren D. Martin, Donisha Prendergast, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Komi Olafimihan and I have come together to demand a congressional hearing on Weaponization of Police. Sign the petition here.