When I learned about Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old man who was killed by Baton Rouge police while selling CDs, my heart became as heavy as it does with every senseless killing of a black man in America. I choked back tears when I saw Sterling’s son break down while his family was speaking about their loved one’s death.
A feeling of hopelessness washed over me as I contemplated other recent racially motivated killings — killings that have come to characterize much of my childhood. First there was Trayvon Martin, whose 2012 death sparked a racial studies unit in my inner-city school. When Michael Brown died, I remember feeling ready to mobilize, to go out and protest. I thought, Enough is enough! When Tamir Rice was killed, I just felt emotionally and mentally tired.
Four years later, I am forced to confront the harsh reality that a black man can be killed by the police in this country for basically any reason. But now I don’t just confront it through headlines, or through my own identity as a woman of color, but also in my relationship with a dark-skinned boyfriend.
My boyfriend is 6 feet tall and clearly black, so he is seen as a threat to many people. When he and I are out in public, not a moment goes by that I don’t worry about his safety. I am paranoid about the sidelong glances security guards give him in stores, and I pray that the alarm doesn’t accidentally go off every time we leave one. When we walk past cops, I grip his hand tightly and hold my breath; I don’t exhale until we are far away. If he's on his way home and his phone dies, I panic that something has happened to him.
Alton Sterling and the countless others we have lost at the hands of police remind me why I worry.
So I tell my boyfriend that there are people out there who want to hurt him just because of the way he looks, people who won’t hesitate to take his life. I tell him he should be more aware when he walks down the street, that he shouldn’t walk too closely to cops because they might see him as a threat.
My acute awareness of the danger my boyfriend faces has become a contentious topic in our relationship. He thinks the way he lives his life should not be constrained by the outside world and its dangers. He wants to behave the way he sees fit, and not be bogged down by all the extra precaution. He wants to go into a store and pick clothes up without worrying he'll be suspected of stealing. He wants to laugh loudly and make bold gestures in public without being feared. He wants to run through the aisles of Target, chasing me just to make me laugh.
I tell him to face reality, that he isn’t woke enough. I want him to read pro-black books and be cautious when he walks alone at night. I want him to stop telling me not to worry when he’s out late. I want him to understand and use terms like "internalized racism," "misogynoir," and "institutional racism." And sometimes I want him to wear his hoodie less in hopes that that makes him look less threatening to others.
He tells me I worry too much. And it's true, I do worry, about everything. But this time, I know my worries are justified.
"You’re a dark-skinned man, living in a racially tense America — wake up!" I tell him. The conversation usually ends with one of us upset at the other.
Of course, these are things that no one should have to worry about as a young person trying to enjoy life. But being black does not afford us the same quality of laxness, the same carefree youth, as white people. I want my boyfriend to be careful, to be aware, to be "woke," to fight the power. But would any of these things protect him from a police officer's bullet?
I try to explain to my boyfriend that I see him in every black man who is slain by the police, and that although I love him with everything in me, I know the rest of the world doesn’t. I believe I am doing this for his own good. I don’t want him to be the next Alton Sterling. "I’m trying to save your life," I say.
But do I expect him to live his life in fear — afraid to be himself because of the dangers in the world? More and more, I’m starting to realize that he does deserve to live his life the way he sees fit as a black man in America, despite everything going on in the world. Knowing that he faces a battleground every time he steps outside should not stop him from being himself.
Alton Sterling was just selling CDs when the police killed him. No amount of knowledge or preparation could have protected him — or could protect my boyfriend or any other young black man — from police brutality in this country right now. It’s still important to fight for the change we want to see in our communities and to do whatever we can to work toward that change. But for now, refusing to live in fear is a radical act.
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