Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed after he was stalked and approached by two armed men suspicious of his presence in the neighborhood he happened to be in. That he was black, and that the men who killed him are white, matters because of the historical context of whites believing they possess a birthright to surveil, control and jury us.
This, alone, should be enough. It is a meal that requires no more cooking, no more seasoning. But America does not work that way. More is needed for a story like this to convince people to care, so what Ahmaud Arbery was recorded doing the moments before he was murdered has become the fulcrum of it.
That he was killed while he appeared to be jogging is particularly cruel and terrifying, and has become a segue delivery device for larger conversations on the myriad dangers of existing while black. Specifically, the dangers of jogging, outdoors, while black. If you are a black person who jogs—or if you just happen to live in a neighborhood that joggers frequent—you’re definitely aware of the calculus of that dynamic.
In my neighborhood, for instance, there is a 60-something white woman who regularly jogs at 4 a.m. I’ve seen her on weekend nights when returning home from late parties, and on weekdays when I’ve had to leave the house for early flights. The first time I saw her was when returning from a wedding reception several years ago. As I exited my car, I saw this dark figure approaching in the street, and my fight or flight began to engage until I realized it was an elderly white woman. Of course, a woman jogging at night is its own Pandora’s box of potential dangers. But the privilege of the sort of benefit of the doubt that I gave her is exclusive to whiteness.
The act of jogging in public itself is daunting, painful, and looks ridiculous. The ridiculousness has become normalized because so many people—myself included—have done it but watching people in reflective gear (and obvious distress) weave through cars and cement and snow to achieve some arbitrary fitness goal will never not be absurd. But the absurdity humanizes it—we’re all out there looking ridiculous together—and helps allow it to be an effective signifier of conscientiousness and class. Joggers are disciplined. Joggers are industrious. Joggers care. Joggers are worthy.
It’s no accident that jogging has become the thing we’ve latched onto with Ahmaud Arbery, because it’s a shorthand for worthiness—which is a shorthand for “some of us deserve to live more than others do.” He was killed while doing an activity we (black people) have deemed respectable. And we’ve deemed it respectable because they (white people) do, too.
Implicit in the awkward #IRunWithMaud campaign is that it ain’t for us. Or for him. It’s for them to see our worthiness through his. And like all other forms of respectability, it’s a performance; a dance no different than cutting your hair or overenunciating your vowels to appear more professional. A behavioral deodorant applied to give ourselves a veneer of blamelessness and innocence.
The compulsion to humanize ourselves when we’re victimized doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a protection mechanism that attempts to induce empathy. “We are just like you” it suggests, with the hope that this realization convinces them to care if we are killed. (And then, to stop killing.) We saw it with Eric Garner and “Can’t Breathe.” And with Mike Brown and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” But this sort of appeal is doomed because anyone who needs to be convinced of our humanity can’t be convinced of our humanity. It’s also flawed, because what if Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t actually out for a jog? What if he was actually casing the neighborhood? Is his life less valuable then? Less worthy?
The reality of never receiving the benefit of the doubt sometimes compels us to overcorrect; where even as we recognize the danger of needing a “perfect victim,” we airbrush parts of a person that might not fit the narrative we’re desperate to sell. This is the sneakiest danger of respectability. It doesn’t just demand a performance; it constricts humanity. In an attempt to seem more human to them, we dehumanize ourselves by shrinking the range of thoughts and behaviors we’re capable of. What’s worse to be: a monster or a mannequin?
Of course, if Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t as virtuous as we’ve made him to be, what happened would still be as brutal. As terrifying. As evil. But if the value of his life was dependent on that (presumed) worthiness, what happens if you remove it? Does “killed while jogging” matter more than just killed?
We’re gonna do what we feel we gotta do to keep safe, I know. But just call it what it is. And don’t call it what it ain’t.