In the past couple of weeks there has been much news about racial profiling resulting in the unjust accosting and humiliation of movie star Rob Brown seeking to buy a Movado watch for his mother at Macy’s New York, and a black teen being detained under the assumption that he could not afford a high end belt from Barney’s. These instances brought me back to my teenage years in Florida where I was constantly followed and pestered. My favorite watch brand is Movado. I planned on buying myself one next year in Macy’s. Will the police be called on me? These reports ignited reflection on my brushes with prejudice both in the U.S. and Europe.
Upon arrival at Wake Forest in 2007, campus social life was centered on Greek life. One frat in particular seemed to have built up quite a “non-inclusive” reputation for itself over the years. I was turned away from one of their parties because it was an “all white party” (supposedly in the fashion sense). Ironically, I was dressed in an all white outfit. All white everything, socks and shoes included!
My presence was unwanted. This experience was a watershed moment for me. The indignity I felt that night was something that I never wanted to feel again! Unfortunately my remedy of securing theme housing based on our mentorship program brought a more sinister type of prejudice into my life, the scrutiny of the campus police. We threw some parties, and yes there were some epically enjoyable ones. But without fail our parties were targeted for shut down on the basis of the most spurious of claims and thinly veiled pretexts. We were adamant about alcohol not being served or brought on the premises period, so there was no under-aged drinking at our parties. But Wake Forest campus police saw it their duty to shut down predominantly black student patronized, non-alcoholic parties when there was under-aged drinking going on en masse in the fraternity lounges on campus.
WFU’s police officers, for much of my time there were very condescending to students and in particular racial minorities. A friend was accosted and asked to present his ID because his shoes (a pair of Jordans) fit the description of an assailant. Another friend was questioned because he fit the description of a suspicious person (he was working at the Law School for work study and like any other student he favored hoodies as a comfortable and durable article of clothing). What was the description of the suspicious individual? A black man about 5’9 in a hoodie. My friend is 5’9 and black and liked hoodies. That’s all it took for him to be characterized as a criminal. Maybe I should have expected that this would be the norm at a predominantly white institution.
“You should have known that you’d have these type of experiences when you decided to grow out your hair.” This was the response of a friend when I told him about some of the racist experiences I had while in Europe, specifically London and Amsterdam. These encounters demonstrated the unassailable fact that my presence, by virtue of my race, is threatening and/or undesirable and potentially problematic in almost any geographic setting that I’ve been to outside of Jamaica. After arriving in London on a visit to my cousin, I was kept at customs for an extended period of time and subjected to a barrage of inane, redundant and pervasive questions. I know exactly what the problems were: my Jamaican accent, my brown skin and dreadlocks. Evidently, I fit the profile of a drug mule.
In the Netherlands while waiting for my cousin to arrive for our weekend trip to Amsterdam where she had studied abroad 10 years ago, I was approached by the same custom official four times asking me my purpose and why I was sitting around, and each time I told him the same thing in a courteous, subdued and eloquent manner. The blonde lady who arrived about thirty minutes after I did was never questioned. Even while reading the International Herald Tribune in the airport in Amsterdam, my presence is threatening. Maybe young black men with dreadlocks don’t read newspapers in the Netherlands. This is a country with a widely popular celebration and cultural tradition centered on a character in black face after all. Yep, maybe I should have known better. Needless to say, I have no intentions of going to Amsterdam again nor going to Britain once my cousin Renee no longer lives there.
I hope that there will one day exist an American society where my family, friends and I won’t have the misfortune of criminality being ascribed to us based solely on the shades of our skins. Moreover, I hope that when I view four black male teenaged cyclists in New Haven on the ground in handcuffs while walking home from the grocery store I’ll be able to assume that the police are acting in good faith. I hope that if ever in need of help after an accident, police will aid me instead of cutting my life short in a brutal fashion. I also hope never to have to worry that my 14 and 15 year old brothers will have to be hesitant about walking in our predominantly white neighborhood on the I-4 corridor in Central Florida in the Yale hoodies I bought them–as some may see them as the “uniform” of criminals.
Race, though my most salient characteristic, isn’t something I overly concern myself with until I’m forced to confront it with the knowledge that in many of the places that I visit, my presence is deemed an imminent threat and my presence is undesired.