As a black boy growing up in Baton Rouge, I was far from being 6 feet tall or 200 pounds (and remain so), but I always had a sense that I was one toy gun, hoodie, pair of sagging pants, or beanie away from raising the suspicion and fears of the collective–at the time, largely their purses and their children’s friendships. Which meant I had to be the really good–even angelic–smiling black kid. Being one of the only black kids in the “smart kid classes” at first encouraged this sense and almost made me think other people of color should just “be good” and not “bad.” But too many purse-clenches, overheard racist conversations about my intelligence, and wrongful accusations (including being wrongly accused of sexual harassment and visited by the police) by the age of 12 taught me that even avoiding these articles of suspicion wasn’t enough to gain the type of dignity I deserved.
In another take on a well-known phrase: I thought I had to be “twice as good to get half” the credibility, respect and character automatically assumed to other little boys and girls, but in the end, my actions could not preclude me from the assumptions and fears of the collective. What other people think or fear actually really matters and their judgments and fears could have a serious cost to my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Racism (or at least a part of it) is being forced to play the angel or remain the demon–be exceptional or remain problematic–and I think most people of color recognize how this kind of inequality extends outside of all of individual stories as a continued legacy within most of our nation’s systems and institutions.
I’m sure that the same people finding confidence in the current system and connecting Mike Brown’s murder as a “fair punishment” for his sin of theft and bullyish behavior will follow Tamir’s case and find the words to say things like he shouldn’t have had the fake gun or he should have had the sense to not grab the gun or should have been in school. I’ve heard this said and expounded on much more eloquently than how I state it now, but the struggle isn’t over and we haven’t reached a real sense of equality or equal footing until we can be as average as everyone else.