In late November 2014, a grand jury in St Louis County declined to to indict Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Brown was previously seen stealing cigarillos from a convenience store. Wilson shot Brown, who was unarmed, a grand total of twelve times. I was infuriated.
At the time, I was smart enough to know that Brown shouldn’t have died, but naive enough to think that respectability was the key to stopping these types of things from happening. I remember tweeting things to the effect of: “While he shouldn’t have died, he wouldn’t have gotten shot if he didn’t steal anything in the first place,” “If we become a part of the system, we can change it,” and the ever infamous “#AllLivesMatter.”
I said #AllLivesMatter because, well, all lives do matter. But through more exploration of the work of activists and scholars like Feminista Jones, Trudy, and Marc Anthony Neal, a Duke professor I’d later have the chance to meet, I realized that what I was saying was extraordinarily short-sighted. I learned that everyone knows that life matters, but not many people acknowledged that #BlackLivesMatter. I learned that the system wasn’t made for us and respectability is synonymous with complacency. I felt like what I was learning made some sense, but in order to really understand why it made sense, I had to unlearn some of the things my upper-middle class black family taught me.
Aren’t we supposed to continue learning, though? Why would one unlearn?
Yes, we should continue learning. Of course we should. When we learn, however, we’re going to come into contact with things that seem to juxtapose the very values our family and friends hold near and dear to their hearts.
While I’m not trying to get you to veer away from your family values, we must take into account that racism is taught and can very easily be internalized, especially to those who have managed to escape some of the typical stereotypes that black people endure. For example: I grew up in the suburbs, everyone in my family is college-educated, my parents drove nice cars, and I had the opportunity to travel early. Because of this, I’d frequently stay away from black people who didn’t have those privileges. At the time, I didn’t necessarily realize that they were privileges, so I didn’t understand how problematic my mentality was. I just knew that I didn’t what to “stoop down” to “their” level—whatever the fuck that means.
Anyway, I didn’t associate myself with people who “talked ghetto,” wore raggedy clothes, or couldn’t keep up with me in conversation. I didn’t know that because they didn’t have my fortunate upbringing, they literally could not afford to go to a school that taught them effective ways to learn “proper English.” Public schools in Florida are paid for by property taxes, so if you don’t live in an area with valuable property then your schools won’t have the money to pay for the programs that mine had. There’s “nothing wrong with the system though.”
It took me 19 years to realize that this was wrong. Since I decided to make the effort to examine the things I learned from people I held near and dear to my heart, I realized that respectability may be able to help you reach a listening ear, but that’s nowhere near the core of the problem. The core of the problem is in the way this country was built—ripped out of the hands of Natives and thrown onto the backs of black people.