As A Black Woman, Is My Dignity Worth My Life?
On July 6, 2016, I woke up, on vacation, in a comfy hotel room. I scrolled through the news: Trump, Trump, A Kardashian Does Something Totally Normal. Buried in between the same ole BS was an article that told me another black man, Alton Sterling, had been shot and killed by police officers. I watched the video. I watched the video again. I watched the video one more time. I rolled over and put on my eye mask; today, I did not see a reason to get up and be my best self — nor to get up and be my most angry, resentful self.
It was as if being on vacation meant I also wanted to be on vacation from open season on black lives. Eventually, at around 7 p.m., I went to dinner with my parents; afterwards, we drove down a winding, dark road in Virginia. As a cop pulled out behind us, my pulse quickened and I looked at my father, my protector, and wondered: Who protects him?
When I first learned to drive, my father told me a story: In 1970, he'd moved from New York to Boston and was pulled over for having New York plates while residing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He said that never had he been so sure his life could end so quickly simply because of the color of his skin. The Boston area, like many major cities at the time, was going through its own share of racial tension. This was the start of “The Talk"; the talk almost every black child gets about police brutality and how to avoid getting killed for being black.
My dad gave me a list of instructions: In the event that I was pulled over, I was to immediately use my flip phone (this was 1999, after all, before cell phone videos) to call home and tell my parents my location. Next, I was to crack my window and politely — politely, for it could depend on my life — tell the officer that my parents were on their way, and slide my driver’s license through the window before returning my hands to 10 and 2, staring straight ahead.
At the time, I thought to myself, “That's way too many instructions to remember. I'm still learning how to parallel park.” I thought my dad was being ridiculous; after all, it was 1999, and we were supposed to be way past the era of racially-motivated police violence. Besides, my dad played basketball with half the cops in town. Fifteen-year-old-me was not buying it.
But I would remember The Talk when I was in the car when white classmates were pulled over, noting that they didn't even bother to turn their music down when the officer approached. And I would remember it in the years to come.
The loss of an opportunity or friendship over speaking up for what's just has — without a doubt, hands-down, clenched-fist raised — always been worth my self-worth as a black woman. The question is, is that self-worth worth my life?
Fast forward every single year after that: Black Americans and people of color are still a target for police brutality. Black women, ever the ignored demographic, are not safe from criminal behavior at the hands of the blue uniform that promises to protect us regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Today, it seems that the pledge officers take to serve and protect only applies to those who lack melanin.
I highly doubt that the men on my dad’s basketball team or my fellow classmates who went into law-enforcement would ever intentionally shoot and kill an unarmed person because they're black. In fact, I have doubts that all of the past shootings of unarmed blacks have had that intent behind them. Rather, I suspect that the stigma associated with black men being dangerous criminals is so deeply ingrained into our society that an unwarranted fear pulls the trigger before the logical part of the brain can respond appropriately. This stigma is so widely spread that even POC who sport the badge aren’t immune to this dangerous line of thinking.
I've shouted my fair share of “Fuck Police Brutality” lyrics to bands like Anti-Flag and definitely have enough courage to sing along to Body Count’s "Cop Killer." And while I fear for the lives of my cousins, my black friends, my father, and my little nephew, I cannot say that my anger over the most recent shootings has made me afraid when I see a white person wearing blue. Not because I am a woman — we know that black women are not immune to police brutality — but because being afraid of white cops would only be giving into the same type of racial stereotyping. I will not catch their ignorance and I will not be terrorized by bullies, even if those bullies carry guns and/or write laws. I am, and will always be, better than ignorance.
The thing about The Talk is that it seemed to contradict everything my parents had taught me: to assume my equality and to take my privilege, never waiting for it. I have always known that I am as deserving of equal treatment and privilege as my white peers, and I try to claim it, never waiting for my rights to come to me. The loss of an opportunity or friendship over speaking up for what's just has — without a doubt, hands-down, clenched-fist raised — always been worth my self-worth as a black woman.
The question is, is that self-worth worth my life? Is it worth it to mouth off to a cop with a gun because for the 10th time in three years I’m being "randomly searched" in the middle of the day, when my white friends that have lived in New York City all their lives have never been searched? Is it worth my life to state firmly that I know my rights and to demand to know why I’m being pulled over? Is equality worth my life? The answer isn’t as clearly yes as I once thought it would be.