Questlove has a thoughtful and well-written essay in New York today describing his reaction to George Zimmerman’s exoneration and how it combines with his experience as a black man to send him a message that he “ain’t shit” in this society. He talks about being seen as a threat at all times and how he responds to it:
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.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to go through life black, and I cannot imagine the heartache and fear of knowing that there is at least one state in the US where it is legal to hunt down a black teen and kill him because he was seen as a threat. I can only start to know what it’s like by listening to the experiences of friends and commentators like Questlove, and for that I’m very thankful that he took the time to bare his soul.
His essay stumbles into the thorny territory of intersectionality when he illustrates his point with an anecdote about, of all things, being alone in an elevator with a woman:
So door opens and I flirt, “Ladies first.” She says, “This is not my floor.” Then I assume she is missing her building card, so I pulled my card out to try to press her floor yet again. She says, “That’s okay.”
Then it hit me: “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed. It was a “pie in the face” moment.
He is understandably hurt to think that she has seen him as a potential threat and taken a precaution for her own safety. He assumes she didn’t know he’s a famous musician on a popular late night show, and attributes her fear to his large size and his dark skin color. He wants her to see him as a human being and not a black thug.
As the comments on the piece suggest, I wasn’t alone, as a woman, in placing myself in her shoes. I’ve sort of been in her shoes, after all, though in my case the man in the elevator was white, confident and forward, and the very height of entitlement. I can say with some degree of certainty that I wouldn’t have hesitated to give Questlove my floor number, because I am both trusting in others and also rarely frightened because I tend to always assume I can out-think, out-fight, or out-run any threat that comes my way. In my elevator situation, for instance, I was never scared but more annoyed, and I used it as an example of poor behavior because I knew that many other women would have been rightfully scared of someone who obviously cared little about her personal feelings. My experiences do not encompass the experiences of all women, and so even though I may not have reacted in the same way, I absolutely understand and condone the response of the woman in Questlove’s anecdote as described.
Even for me, despite my lack of fear, I always evaluate potential threats around me and try to be on guard. Even if I recognized Questlove, I would still note him as a potential threat. Celebrity doesn’t make a person more trustworthy in my eyes – in fact, I assume celebrities and other powerful people are more entitled and therefore pose more of a threat.
I’d like to say Questlove’s skin color would have nothing to do with my evaluation of his threat level, but of course I know that I grew up and continue to live in a very racist society and I’m sure I have some subconscious prejudice as a result. I can say that consciously, though, my evaluation of him would be primarily based on these factors:
1. Can this person overpower me?
2. Is this person viewing me as a sexual object?
So if I place myself in the shoes of the woman in Questlove’s anecdote, I can say without a doubt that the answer to both those questions is “yes.” He’s very large, and he writes that this was his thought process during the interaction:
She was also bangin’, so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”
In the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal, would a black man have a similar threat evaluation about a white man following him late at night? “Can this person overpower me? Is this person viewing me as a racist caricature?”
Sexual objectification and racist stereotyping both lead to the dehumanization of marginalized people that Questlove accurately describes as feeling that you ain’t shit.
Obviously I wasn’t the woman in Questlove’s elevator and so I can only guess at what happened. Maybe she was racist, and maybe she would have told a large white man her room number. But I suspect that both Questlove and the woman had similar desires: to be seen first as a human being.
EDIT: Just after I posted this, I happened to read Jessica Valenti’s article on white women’s fear of men of color. I think it’s important to include here.