What do you do in a world without sanctuary? How do you function when your ability to do so is literally threatened at every moment by the possibility that someone might deem you dangerous and respond with force? We lamented this very thing with the death of Jonathan Farrell and Trayvon Martin and Amadou Diallo and so many other Black men and boys who have been killed by police or those acting in a position of law-enforcement. But while we have also acknowledged that Black women, too, are at risk and have been unjustly killed by those same forces (the family of Rekia Boyd was recently awarded a large settlement from the city of Chicago after an off-duty cop recklessly shot her to death while accusing her friend of some misconduct), we don’t speak enough about the profiling that Black women endure.
And now with the death of Renisha McBride, people, we must fix that.
The details surrounding the 19-year-old Detroit woman’s death, though murky still, are hauntingly similar to that of Farrell’s in North Carolina less than two months ago. McBride, too, was involved in a car crash and sought the assistance of someone in a nearby home. But instead of being gunned down by the police like Farrell, she was shot in the back of the head as she walked away by the person who came to the door. A woman walking away from your home is so much of a potential threat that you have to shoot her? If she’s Black, there’s likely some sort of narrative that can and will be spun to defend his actions. How was the homeowner supposed to know some n-gger wasn’t going to come out and rob him?
I have many reflections on being racially profiled as a Black woman and though I want to deflect from Renisha’s killing as little as possible, I do want to underscore the point that this happens more than we acknowledge. I can’t help but to think about what one of us—Blacks, of all genders—can do in situations in which we are in dire straits and require the help of strangers. And as a mother of a tiny Black girl, it chills me to the bone to think that someone could one day look at her in a teenaged body, in a position in which she needed help and see her as a threat.
Twice in my life have I gone to White strangers in need of aid. The first time, I was maybe 16 or 17 and was walking home late at night by myself. Something creeped me out and I asked two White male college students to walk with me, which was totally uncharacteristic of me—asking male strangers for help, asking White people for help. It was obvious that they were made nervous by me. Like they thought I was trying to create a diversion of some sort. “They told us to walk in the street instead of the sidewalk to be safe,” is all that one of them could offer. The other boy stayed silent. I made it home okay, but it hurt.
The second time: I was sexually assaulted and robbed at gunpoint in suburban PG County, Maryland. I drove to the nearest police station that I knew of, which was in DC, and was told that I had to go back to Maryland to file a report. Long story short, I was treated like some sort of suspect and a detective suggested that I might have been lying to cover up losing some money. I think back on that night and wonder, what if I had driven to the nearest home instead of going to the cops? I was dazed and frantic. What if I had scared some White person?
Do we look different from other people in our moments of fear and vulnerability? Bruises, blood, tears, shaking hands…do we not present these human reactions to trauma in the same way as people of other races? While a White man, IN PARTICULAR might not have been presented with an open door by a homeowner who found him on her doorstep at 2am, surely the police would have been able to determine that he was not guilty of anything but saving his own life following a car accident. And we can safely assume that a White woman in Renisha’s place would be more likely to get a cup of cocoa and an ibuprofen than a bullet through her skull.
I do not know what to take away from this. I do not know how else to order my steps and my child’s steps other than to acknowledge the fact that making White people feel safe in my presence, and perhaps avoiding them at all costs in certain situations, may be a necessary precaution. If I am ever in danger, perhaps I should just lay down and pray that Black Jesus comes and takes me in His Arms and makes me safe. Because it seems the humanity it requires to do THE ABSOLUTE LEAST and aid someone in need is not something that I can count on a certain segment of the population to do. Furthermore, as a Black woman, I also do not have the luxury of pretending that the police won’t come and kill me during my most vulnerable moments.
How ironic is the phrase “All I have to do is stay Black and die” considering that “staying Black” is so often the condition that leads to our deaths?
People in Detroit are mobilizing to demand answers and justice for Renisha. Or, rather, the closest thing to justice that one can get considering that her life has been ended at just 19 years old and no judge, jury or settlement can rectify that. EBONY.COM will follow this story. We will support her family and we will pray for their comfort and her spirit. But beyond that, the only thing that can truly challenge these repeated injustices is a paradigm shift in the minds of White people that allows them to see Black people as their fellow human beings and not monsters who stand in perpetual threat to their safety. If anyone has a plan for that, please let me know.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com. Views expressed in "The Beautiful Struggler" are her own. Tweet her: @jamilahlemieux