The role of a safe Negro

As a black woman, and one who is woefully short on patience or sympathy for police right now, I think N.W.A. best expressed the sentiments many black Americans, including me, are feeling. We have little love in our community for the police, and every day we are given a new reason why this is justified. I don’t know the remedy to murderous cops or the system that is complicit to upholding their behaviors. I don’t know how to stop the constant harassment that comes with being black, but I know that America needs to make this right.

This system is created by white supremacy, sustained by it and predicated upon keeping it in place. I can’t help to fix a system that doesn’t believe that I am human. I won’t attempt. I’ve said this before. All I can do is to tell you, dear reader, what it feels like to be black in America.

Every morning, I wake up, like you, in a bed, warm and safe. I’m blessed, and I know this.

I look over at my husband and am grateful that he loves me because of, and beyond, the color of my skin. Sure, his life can be complicated by our marriage but, when he leaves the house, he’s still white, and on the surface of him, no one knows that I exist. To some degree, I’m ashamed to admit that fact is comforting.

If we are out together, I no longer need to show him how black folks are treated. He can see it firsthand. When I walk into a store with my husband — let’s take my favorite store, Target — my husband can peruse the aisles in peace. He isn’t stopped in every department and asked, “Do you need help?”

I am.

When I say, “No, I’m fine,” the employee stays nearby, straightens the shelves and miraculously appears within feet of me several times, no matter where I am in the store. If it isn’t the same employee, then another takes his place. I’m questioned several more times. It is never because they want to help.

When my phone rings from inside my purse, I always hesitate to reach in and grab it. I know that the lurking employee is watching to see if I’m stuffing Marvel Avengers toys in my bag. When I do answer the phone, I make a show of the phone in clear view so they know — it’s just a phone.

You see, so much that I do when I’m faced with public scrutiny is a show. I have learned well. I have to perform the role of a safe Negro, so that I can make it home, a safe Negro — a safe Negro writer, educator, wife and mother. I perform without thinking and am disgusted when I see myself in that role, because I know that the performance, the safe Negro, is a farce. In the United States, with a culture in power that doesn’t see me as anything but a threat, my only alternative to being considered safe is to be dead.

My fear isn’t imaginary. It was carefully imprinted from the time I was a child, when I saw my parents’ interactions with cops, to my run-ins as a teenager being harassed for being at the mall with parents’ money to spend just like white teens and to the inevitable experiences I’ve had as a grown-up with the ability to buy a new car and the gall to drive outside of a black neighborhood. I don’t live in a black neighborhood, so I’m accustomed to the suspicion, but never cozy with the harassment.

Black Americans exist in a constant state of fight or flight, passed down through generations since we arrived in this country and were put on sale blocks in town squares — naked, humiliated, in public, as sanctioned by our government.

Know that we don’t want your pity. I definitely don’t, but I need you to look at this country, at the filthy history and the rivers of black blood continuously spilled in our streets, whether by the hands of police, or by the hands of poverty that creates elevated danger in our neighborhoods.

I need you to watch the activity around a black person shopping, or being pulled over by four police cars for an expired tag. Just pay attention. If you think our stress is fabricated, you must also believe that when soldiers return from war and have a similarly hard time assimilating into normal life, that war wasn’t as bad as they believe.

Bottom line, if you don’t recognize this problem, you are absolutely a part of it.

About the Author

The role of a safe Negro

Erica Rucker is LEO Weekly’s editor-in-chief. In addition to her work at LEO, she is a haphazard writer, photographer, tarot card reader, and fair-to-middling purveyor of motherhood. Her earliest memories are of telling stories to her family and promising that the next would be shorter than the first. They never were. You can follow Erica on Twitter, but beware of honesty, overt blackness, and occasional geeky outrage.


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