My best friend’s name is James.
James was like an older brother to me. He was only two years older than me, but he is still the most charismatic, charming, funniest person I ever met. Men love him. Women love him. He always had an uncanny ability to read people and situations. We call that street smart. He can walk into a room and leave with the adoration of every person in the room. He was unflappable, and always calm. In fact, when we were kids, he was dubbed with the appropriate nickname of “James Bond,” which eventually became “Double O seven, which ultimately (as all Black nicknames do) morphed into the moniker that everyone still refers to him by to this very day: Double O.
As my unbeknownst mentor, Double-O taught me a million things about life. One of the things Double-O loved (which I still hate)–was horror movies. When we were kids, we watched every scary movie that came out. Once, during a showing of Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, or some other poorly-made fright flick, I jumped out of my seat when one of the main characters screamed. James sat there calmly and just said, “not yet.” When I asked him how he knew that person wouldn’t be killed, he simply replied, “If they scream, Freddie Krueger (Or Michael Myers, or the Chuckie doll) won’t kill them. They kill the quiet ones.”
That changed the way I watched horror movies, because–since then–I noticed that the killers always appeared out of nowhere, snuck up on the protagonist and hacked them to death as they stood there silently stunned. The paranoid protagonist of the movie who survived the slaughter was always the one who warned his friends about the monster and screamed bloody murder at the sound of the slightest crackle in the woods.
If you are black and even minimally aware of racism, you tend to scream about it. As you shriek about Black lives, police brutality or systematic inequality, you will undoubtedly be approached (invariably by the passively aggressive Caucasian character, Mister Y. P. Pull) who tries to dismiss your contentions by whitesplaining inequity with rationalizations of the “free market,” societal tendencies or the remedial, overarching dismissiveness of “it’s-not-like-that.” Eventually they will arrive at the question all White people pose when confronted with Black resistance:
“Why does everything has to be about race?”
Double-O spent countless hours at my house. One of the reasons he spent so much time at my house is because my mother loves to cook. Every time my mother would prepare an endless heap of food for us, we had an annoying smoke alarm in the kitchen that would invariably go off. James and I would laugh about it, but I was secretly embarrassed. One day, after being embarrassed in front of James too many times about the alarm, I tried to convince her to let me take the battery out. She refused. When I asked why, James said “because it is supposed to go off, dummy. There is smoke.”
Here’s the thing about smoke detectors: They are machines, therefore they are prone to error. There are two ways a smoke detector malfunctions:
The first is–it can be too sensitive. It will blare its horns whenever you burn breakfast, boil water, smoke a joint or light a cigarette (people still do that, right–smoke cigarettes?). The second kind of malfunctioning smoke detector is quite the opposite. It rarely goes off. It fails to warn you when there is real danger. It will have you sitting there in a real fire, suffocating on unseen fumes, thinking it is just smoke and light.
The first kind forces you to find a chair and push the reset button every time you fry an egg or hit a bong (so I’ve heard.) The first kind is annoying as fuck. The second kind of smoke detector, is different. The second kind is much easier to maintain. It rarely bothers you. It is quiet and you barely notice its malfunction until there’s a fire.
The second kind will kill you.
Here’s the thing about Black people:
We are human. We are prone to error and malfunction. Sometimes we are even wrong about prejudice. Sometimes we go off when we aren’t hired for the job we were qualified for–even when the white candidate had better credentials. Sometimes we point to a racist insult when it is really a benevolent mistake by a well-meaning White person. Sometimes the Black boy who was killed by police really did have a gun and point it at officers. Sometimes our fiery claims of racism are really just smoke and light.
But then Eric Garner happens. Then Tamir Rice happens. Or John Crawford. Or Trayvon. Then we read the statistical evidence that shows mathematical empirical evidence for police bias, like Black male teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops. Then we read the study that show the return to racial segregation in education. Then we see the stories about bias in lending from financial institutions. Or the one about employers discounting applicants with Black names.
Do you wonder why we are screaming?
After the most recent election, every American recognizes that we are confined in a political prison based on an electoral college and a two-party system constructed 250 years ago. Our gun laws reflect the ideas of people who loaded lead balls into muskets. The grades, school year and subject matter of our education system are remnants of a 400-year-old outdated institution. Every single thing that guides American policy and life are throwbacks to centuries-old thinking, yet we magically believe we have transcended the beliefs and policies of a country whose global economic power was built and solidified through the free labor of White supremacy. Every single Black person who has ever lived has encountered the residual fragments of this legacy. Every social, economic and political foundation in this country is based at least in part on the history of slavery. How are we supposed to shut the fuck up about it?
Black people live in a horror movie. Racism is a fantastic paranoid delusion. It is a monster on the loose. It might not sneak into our house wielding a chainsaw, but we have seen our people chopped to bits. We spend much of our time either running from the beast, fighting it or bowing down to it. We cannot close our eyes and pretend it doesn’t exists. It kills the quiet ones. The ones whose alarms occasionally malfunction mistakenly reach for their wallets or play with BB guns in parks. They think they are safe wearing hoodies while walking through White neighborhoods. They believe they can get the job because they are qualified. They think they can succeed simply because they sufficiently studied or worked hard. They do not scream when they see the ominous shadows.
We are often wrong. Sometimes there is no fire. Sometimes it is just smoke and light. If we are wrong, we can’t just hit the reset button. We are not afforded the privilege of malfunctioning alarms. We have seen the behemoth in the hockey mask, carrying a machete and bad intentions, and we must take every threat seriously. We must scream, or fall victim to an unequal justice system. Or lose the fight for educational equity. Or remain part of the disenfranchised…
Why does everything have to be about race?
Because for us–it is.