Editor’s Note: Ernest Owens is the editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. He has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The views expressed here are solely his.
Another week, another set of reminders of how hard it is to be black in America.
Thanks to social media, the nation is tuning in to a phenomenon of everyday racial profiling that’s been impeding the lives of black people for decades.
Whether it’s sitting, golfing, exercising, renting, shopping, working or even napping while black – the truth has become hard to deny: America is beginning to see how difficult it is living while black.
While many of my white peers on social media have begun to express remorse after reading these horrific stories on my newsfeed, I’m perplexed as to why it took them so damn long to finally acknowledge these issues. As painful as these experiences are for me to personally read, they are nothing new for me, or for countless black Americans who’ve spent an entire lifetime navigating the unforeseen dangers of walking out the house and not knowing if we’ll make it home.
Why did it take so long for “living while black” experiences to become viral stories that garnered public sympathy across the board? I personally think the bittersweet powers of social media are behind this newfound wave of awareness. It took a video of those two black men being arrested at Starbucks to be uploaded to Twitter in order for national media outlets to pick up on the story. Similar viral social media tapings connected to the incidents with white people calling the police on black people also played a huge role in capturing public attention. But all of this is bittersweet to me because it once again plays into the unfortunate trend of not believing that such experiences routinely occur – or even that they occur at all – unless it’s caught on tape.
This week, a white Yale graduate student called authorities on a fellow black student who was napping in a common area of their dorm. Lolade Siyonbola, who posted two videos of her encounter with campus police that have now gone viral, stated unequivocally: “I deserve to be here … I’m not going to justify my existence.” Meanwhile, a (white) vice president at Duke University reportedly demanded the firing of all employees on duty at a campus branch of a local coffee shop (one black, one white) for playing a rap song he found offensive. Both employees were asked to resign by the coffee chain’s human resources department.
The difficulty of being in a coffee shop while black is still in the public consciousness after last month’s viral video of two black men being arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, which sparked the hashtag #StarbucksWhileBlack on social media and prompted a nationwide conversation about the dangers of white people calling the police on innocent black people.
That’s clearly a conversation we as a society need to keep having. In May alone, there have been multiple alarming reported incidents of police wrongly being called on black people for no apparent misconduct. Nordstrom Rack recently had to apologize for falsely accusing black teens of shoplifting at their Missouri location. In California, three black girls had the police called on them after checking out of their Airbnb rental.
When I got stopped and frisked at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, my phone battery was dead, so I couldn’t record video or call anyone. And even if that hadn’t been the case, I was also too afraid to reach into my pockets to pull out any device on my person as armed police patted me down from head-to-toe on a campus that I considered my home for four years. I remember some of my white peers not believing that such a thing could happen because they were too disillusioned to believe that racial profiling took place on an Ivy League campus.
As a young black gay man, these are the daily questions I ask myself internally as I walk in public: Are my hands visible? Do I appear angry? Am I walking in front of white people rather than behind them in the street? Do I have cash on me to buy something before I ask the cashier can I use the bathroom?
These are the questions that were passed down to me from generations of black men in my family who witnessed the consequences for those who just so happened to be at the right place at the wrong time. These are the respectability politics of how black people are often forced to conduct themselves in society. It’s not by choice, but by obligation. It could in many ways be the difference between being free or imprisonment, of staying alive or facing death.
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When my white friends doubted that what happened to me could easily happen on our privileged campus, I felt too powerless to argue with them at the time. I began to believe my lived experience wasn’t enough because I didn’t have “proof.” Clearly, that proof is now resonating far and wide from the corners of another Ivy League school as people continue to respond to what happened at Yale.
For me, as I continue to see more living while black stories become validated with the “proof” of viral videos I never had, I ask of my white colleagues in the media industry and elsewhere to do one thing: Listen to black people and give their experiences the same level of belief you would give to others who don’t have to have provide such traumatic documentation to support their claims. Social media is a powerful tool, but shouldn’t be used to perpetuate the very racial double standards we should all be combating.