As is often the case, I started my day today scrolling through my Facebook timeline. As unproductive and millennial as that may sound, keep in mind I oversee the marketing operations at my job here in D.C., so it’s a bit like getting upset at a car washer for turning on the car radio while he works. Anyways, as I scrolled, I came across two articles that had been shared that were eerily connected.
The first was about a young physician whose passionate offer of medical assistance to an unresponsive fellow passenger on a Delta Airlines flight was rejected by the plane’s crew because they simply couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of a young, black woman from Detroit being a “real doctor.” In their implicit (and, truthfully, explicit) bias, they unnecessarily risked the life of another human being (praise God, he lived).
The second article was about another young black woman who’d been harassed by her bank when she attempted to deposit a check. The bank was extremely skeptical that someone who looked like her was a legitimate architect. They literally made her prove it in front of them, like some kind of modern day banking poll test.
That particular story boiled something serious in me. In fact, this entire article I’m writing now started as a Facebook post in response to that story. Uncannily, I had an almost identical experience with my current credit union, Keesler, based in Mississippi, almost exactly a year ago. They repeatedly questioned where I got “so much money” (mind you, it was somewhere in the ballpark of $1500) and informed me that there would be discretionary hold any time I deposited too much money. When I asked at whose discretion “too much money” would be determined, the bank manager said it’d be at the discretion of the tellers. The next two times I tried depositing checks (of about $300 and $500 each), they placed a 5-day hold on them.
The point I’m trying to make here is that there’s a reason there’s so much angst in the black community about the mainstream portrayals of our community. We keep complaining about the images portrayed of African-Americans in America because those images play a direct role in how we are perceived and treated on an individual level in our daily lives. We are doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, preachers, dancers, athletes, business executives, architects, graphic designers, pilots, Presidents, Secretaries of State, governors, mayors, rappers, singers, technicians, and even whatever the hell I do for a living.
But if you keep getting images of thugs and criminals on your screen, it starts to program society in thinking that that’s the profile of the typical African-American. Prejudice is learned behavior; if you start buying into the perception that more often than not, black folks fit that profile, your actions start to belie your prejudice. You grip your purse a bit tighter when a black man walks into an elevator, you’re skeptical that a young black woman from Detroit is a physician, or, worse, you assume that a black boy is predisposed to violence so you shoot first and ask questions later because, “Well, c’mon, you watch the news, right?” Even the black folks you know on a personal level, you begin to simply see as exceptions to the rule, not proof that the rule is dumb. They’re the “good ones.”
All of this is connected. Black folks aren’t trying to concoct some race-based conspiracy theory to grease the skids of our American experience. It’s the same narrative that civil rights and black activists been pushing against since 1619: the color of our skin is the only tangible difference between us.