Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"You have a right to be scared... but they have a right to live"


It must have been two and a half weeks ago that I read this very interesting article by Britney Wilson about how members of minority groups are sometimes guilty of practicing racial profiling when dealing with members of the same ethnicity. Wilson was writing specifically about the negative stereotypes that some black people have about young, black men. Her conclusion was a powerful one:

People are people. We cannot stigmatize and judge them on one hand, while campaigning against it on the other. As we work to get society to stop stereotyping, judging, and fearing our sons, we cannot continue to perpetuate these attitudes ourselves.
I thought it was a wonderful piece of writing. You see, I believe that, in order to make a genuine difference in society, we have to admit to our own culpability as individuals and as communities. It is easy to talk about the racial or ethnic biases of others, but much more challenging to talk about our own biases towards others and towards our own. "Real talk," some of my friends would say in agreement.

But then, I went on to read the comments that came after the article. There, I encountered the opinions of readers, presumably black, who did not quite agree with Britney Wilson. For your convenience, here are a few of their remarks:

"Profiling the members of ‘our community’ becomes second nature when you face a lot of intraracial street harassment."

"Amen. I racial profile and I don’t make any apologies about it. A Black man is more likely to rob, rape, steal from me than any white man. I see one that looks stereotypical not only am I reaching for my purse but I’m walking in the opposite direction."

"Exactyly. From the time I hit puberty “our sons” made it clear that just because I shared the same skin color didn’t mean that I’d be given any respect."

These comments are, of course, problematic. One would be quick, and correct, to point out that any white person speaking similar words would be accused of racism. So how is one to wrap his or her mind around the fact that these words were written by black women who have, undoubtedly, been victims of racial profiling or stereotyping? Are they actually saying that profiling is justified, knowing full well that it would be used to victimize them and their own?

The simple answer is yes. So the circumstances that would make these women adopt that position must be gruesome. They are essentially arguing that they and other women would be justified in profiling black men: their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. No sane black woman would make that argument lightly. So it is safe to assume that there is a story behind it.

The key to understanding where these women might be coming from lies in articles such as the ones listed below. Note that these articles are graphic and emotionally wrenching. If in-depth discussions of sexual assault and harassment make you uncomfortable, you may be better off setting them aside:
1. Street Meet: Black Women, Black Men, & Everyday Sexual Harassment.
2. Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment & Weight Gain: Facing Facts (make sure to also read the comments that follow this article).

At this point, I want to emphasize that intra-communal violence is not unusual in communities that have historically been subjected to systemic violence. If black communities are characterized by the disproportionately high prevalence of gendered violence, then the same is true for First Nations and Australian Aboriginal communities. These communities' experiences of historical violence have resulted in the normalization of the said violence. Over the years, this and other forms of dysfunction have become accepted forms of behavior among a significant number within the communities. Unfortunately, those who bear the brunt of such violence are often the communities' most vulnerable members: children, women and the elderly.


Many have written or spoken about intracommunal violence, and even given it such labels as "black-on-black violence."  Often, the underlying assumption held by those who speak out against it is that it is unusual for people to visit violence upon members of their own community. But I have to wonder about that. The notion that racial or ethnic solidarity would confer immunity from violence upon members of a community strikes me as a naive one. Many, perhaps most, violent crimes are visited by criminals upon people that they know and communities that they are familiar with. The same is also true of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. They are all often perpetrated by people known to the victims.

When people survive such crimes or violence they, understandably, become hypervigilant. They are likely to be suspicious or scared of people who remind them of their aggressors. When that happens, and they respond to that fear by avoiding the said people, are they simply trying to protect themselves, or are they showing unjustifiable bias? This is the question addressed by many of the comments that follow Britney Wilson's article.

I think that some of the women who responded to the article recognized the complexity of the situation. They wrote nuanced responses, acknowledging what was at stake for women who had previously been victimized. At the same time, they recognized the inherent dangers that came with profiling. Their perspectives were nuanced and balanced. One of these comments follows below. The italics are mine:

"What we think, how we feel are all justified and no one should have to apologize for it. What is wrong is when anyone (including law enforcement) kill someone unnecessarily. Law enforcement have policies and guidelines by which they are ‘supposed’ to follow. The problem is that people are deciding to be judge, juror, and executioner instead of concerned citizen. "

Another woman, writing from the UK, spoke more specifically about her context and her own tendency to profile young white men. She also had a nuanced approach to the subject, and one that I ultimately sympathized with. So I will bring this piece to a close with her words:

"Im a black woman that lives in a predominately white town. I profile young white men who aren't wearing polo shirts and cargo shorts. I hold my bag closer when I come accorss a group of “chavs.” The signs of drug abuse can be visiable on someone’s face so I am careful as I approach someone that looks like they may abuse drugs.

"HOWEVER, (and I cant emphasize this enough) I have no legal right to harm or kill due to my suspcion alone. Its a red herring to even discuss whether we should or should be afraid of young black men. If you feel fear, you are entitled to your fear. You may even be justified. You arent, however, justified in depriving them of their life because of your fear. You have a right to be scared if you want but they have a right to live."
Thoughtful words, indeed. But I think it's important to point out that there are more subtle ways in which profiling can cause harm or damage. Even as we argue that a woman is entitled to feel fear if she thinks she is unsafe, it is crucial to acknowledge that seeing that fear on her face has a psychological impact on the young, black man whose intentions she might have misinterpreted.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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