My mother had the talk with me when I was 18. After years of just the two of us in the house, I was leaving for college and would no longer be under her watchful eye.
When the police pull you over, do what they tell you to do—no matter what. Always move slowly. Always be respectful. When you drive, don’t wear a do-rag, a baseball hat or sun glasses. Don’t play your music too loud. She was preparing me to survive an encounter with the police. She was teaching me how to be respectable.
Respectability politics are “what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.” Instead of combating the systems that oppress us, we are taught how to navigate them; tools for survival, if you will. We are told to pull up our pants; to go to school and get an education; to get a job; to vote. The assumption is that if we do these basic things, we will be looked at as worthy of respect and treated accordingly. The only problem is, that assumption is untrue.
On July 20, 2016, Charles Kinsey almost became a hashtag. He is a caregiver at a group home and tried to attend to one of his patients in crisis. A 23-year-old autistic man was playing with a toy truck in the streets. Kinsey was his caretaker. A 911 call was made with a report of a man on the loose with a gun.
Video of the incident shows Kinsey lying on the ground in a vulnerable position with his hands in the air, pleading with responding officers not to shoot. "All he has is a toy truck, a toy truck," we hear him say. "I am a behavior therapist at a group home."
Police shot him anyway.
This is a man who has some level of education. He has a job. He was overly compliant with the officers. I’d be willing to wager that he probably even votes. It did not matter. When he asked police why he was shot, one officer reportedly said, "I don’t know."
We need to come to terms with the fact that respectability politics are oppressive and do not work. In a suit; in a uniform; in sweatpants; in a hoodie—I’m still treated like a dangerous n—ger. The color of my skin communicates hostility no matter my attire, my hairstyle or my level of education. This mode of existence is problematic because it places the burden of survival on the victim of racism. It says to marginalized populations that you are responsible for the behaviors of the oppressors. That you must not push back and force those in power to acknowledge your humanity but, rather, must prove to them your worth. Allow the system to remain unchanged—just find a way to circumnavigate it.
I’m done with it. They will shoot me anyway. They will look at me with suspicion no matter what I do. Even if I am not perfect in my compliance with law enforcement, even if I am engaged in illegal activity, I deserve respect from those who have vowed to serve and protect. We should not allow our humanity to be tied to the way those in power see us; it should be measured by how we see ourselves. No more talk of a black man or woman "setting us back." No more forcing our children to curtail their expressive creativity to fit Eurocentric norms. Conforming to white expectations as a way to survive is wrongheaded and futile. An education and a job will not keep police from shooting us in the street. Get them, yes, but for you—not to be respectable.
My mother raised me as a single mother. She did the best she could to prepare me for life beyond her protective gaze. Anxiety about sending her only son into a white supremacist world caused her to try to protect me the best way she knew how. Too bad her tips for survival didn’t come with a bulletproof vest.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.