Monday, July 22, 2013

The Opposite of Entitlement

It's hard to imagine Questlove could go unrecognized anywhere. The very tall, very brilliant musician has one of the most famous afros regularly appearing on late night television. 

Known as a member of the Roots, Jimmy Fallon's bandleader, and now an author, the beloved celebrity in anything but threatening. However, a recent editorial proved even an  outspoken social advocate, and talented drummer, can still be reduced to a mere stereotype. 

In response to George Zimmerman's acquittal,  Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson wrote a Facebook post describing what he calls a "pie-in-the-face" moment. Re-published by New York Magazine, the most-viewed story hurts much worse than being struck with an unexpected dessert. 

Thompson begins by explaining how he purposely avoids places. He rejects invitations, not because he is averse to parties, but because he anticipates party-goers being averse to him. 

"I'd say 'no,' mostly because it's been hammered in my DNA to not 'rock the boat,' which means not making 'certain people' feel uncomfortable," he said. 

Certain people are white people. And mostly white women, as we soon find out. Seem ridiculous? Thompson thought so too.

"I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own. You're programmed and taught that from the gate. It's like the opposite of entitlement," he said. 

The opposite of entitlement is oppression. It's feeling like you don't belong, standing out in a way you never wanted; policing your actions, limiting your movements, and inevitably just staying home.  

When we discuss women and violence, we often talk about appearance, instructing them not to look like victims. But what about the other side? What if you look like a bad guy? What if your physical characteristics match what most people see when they imagine a criminal?

Women strive to appear alert and uninviting. Meanwhile, there are men walking slower, smiling more, or just removing themselves from public space so they don't seem to be targeting women. 

"My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it's a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it's safe for me to make people feel safe," he said. 

While at first this is the good-natured consideration many would expect from the man known as Questlove, his self-conscious thoughts are actually heart-breaking. While women clutch their keys, trying to look tough, this man is trying his hardest to look approachable.

Surely, Thompson can let his guard down somewhere. But his story suggests no such place exists. 

In his own building, where he eats, sleeps and pays the rent, he encountered a woman in the elevator. As a formality, he asked her "which floor"-- and she ignored him. He assumed, by her silence, she was headed his way. So when the doors opened, he said "ladies first." But she didn't get off. It wasn't her floor. She kept quiet because she was afraid of him. 

This fear is all too common-- and it has turned us into assholes. As Jessica Valenti wrote for the Nation, the Zimmerman trial was framed less as a man senselessly murdering a child, and more as a hero protecting white womanhood. 

"Yes, white women-- all of us-- are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism," Valenti said. 

Amanda Marcotte expanded on this at Slate, explaining how an all-woman jury, who many assumed would follow their maternal instincts, fell back on fear and let Zimmerman go free. 

"This myth that the world. is full of scary people who are out to get you white ladies works. Plenty of white women are so worried about the imaginary threats lurking outside their door that they don't pay any mind to the real problems that threaten us: economic inequality and lack of health care access," Marcotte said. 

No one on that jury saw Martin as a boy. By high school, he was already perceived as dangerous. From AlternetDeborah Small wondered at what age black men become a threat. 
Fearful for her grandson, a toddler who says "hello" to everyone, Small described most people as receptive, but knows it won't last forever.  

"Right now when people see him they see a cute, well-dressed little boy with a winning smile and engaging personality, his blackness is a matter of minimal significance. Unfortunately, I know at some point that will change," Small said. She's already preparing "for the day he walks up and says hello to someone and they look away in fear." 

Thompson is familiar with this reaction. As an adult, it happens all the time. It happened that day in the elevator.   

"Inside I cried. But if I cried at every insensitive act that goes on in the name of safety, I'd have to be committed to a psych ward," he said. 

Beyond the sadness, this "pie-in-the-face" is a teachable moment. It's the ultimate walk in someone else's shoes. Thompson's internal monologue following the incident sounded like this:

Those that know you know that you're cool, but you definitely know that you are a walking rape nightmare — right, Ahmir? Of course she was justified in not saying her floor. That was her prerogative! You are kinda scary-looking, I guess?
His piece is titled "Trayvon Martin and I Ain't Shit." Thompson concludes that when you look like him, you're a criminal, or nothing. And after so many years of either being closely watched or completely ignored, he's beginning to feel sub-human.  

It's time to check ourselves. Valenti and Marcotte invited white women to examine how they feel about black men-- and why. For anyone interested in doing the same, Thompson's piece is an excellent place to start. This discourse is necessary if we're ever going to co-exist in elevators-- or anywhere else.

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