Questlove, Trayvon Martin, and Not Being Shit

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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

Related Articles


  1. You rightfully note what a tricky thing intersectionality can be. This comes up over and over in the atheist/skeptical movement. We tend to see ourselves as a beleaguered minority fighting for our rights. Unless we pause, we forget that we’re mostly very entitled. Mostly white. Mostly male. Mostly affluent. Mostly educated. Mostly hetero.

    Even on Skepchick, a place where we’re almost all taking great pains to recognize the more marginal members of that community, most of those entitlements still apply. We shouldn’t ever lose sight of that. This is still a very, very lucky crowd. And there are still many, many groups of marginalized people we need to be sensitive to. Most of the world is poor, uneducated, and living under threat of violence. Unless our efforts to improve our lot include them, we can hardly call ourselves humanists.

    1. Two points in response.
      1. Everyone can be discriminatory towards others. Minority men don’t know how all women feel, white women don’t know how minority feel, each race doesn’t know each other’s challenges, non-disabled minority people don’t know how disabled people feel, etc.. Generally I think most people tend to not really respect other people’s disadvantages at times. The correct course of action in any situation of intersectionality is to NOT ASSUME YOU KNOW THE OTHER PERSON’S CHALLENGES OR HOW THEY FEEL.

      Too often one person with a societal disadvantage will assume they know how someone with a different societal disadvantage feels and that they can speak for them. That’s untrue.

      2. Yes, on Skepchick we are all (mostly) mega privileged.

      1. Regarding your first point, I completely agree that assuming you understand another person’s perspective usually does more harm than good. But one thing we CAN work to be aware of is our own advantages, privileges, and entitlements. That’s a really good way to keep yourself from putting your foot in your mouth.

  2. “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 don’t mean to be snarky, but yeah, uh, I can totally imagine what that’s like. So we seem to have something really important in common.

    1. I wonder if he realizes how similar (although, yes, in many ways, different) these types of situations are both for black men and women in general.

      How would he have reacted if the woman in question had been black, I wonder? No snark intended, just an interesting questions.

  3. I wouldn’t doubt if race, even (probably) unconsciously, was part of it, but above all, Questlove is a big man.

    I would have let him in. Even if I didn’t know him, I probably would have gladly let him in. I’m not even sure if I would consider “Ladies first” and a nice smile to be flirting? Just polite. I don’t know, men do that sort of thing all the time, and maybe it’s flirting, but I actually don’t mind. I like when people do nice things for each other and I don’t mind when guys want to let me in first (although pulling out chairs for me is weird, so don’t do that).

    I probably would have flirted with him, too, but I find him incredibly attractive to begin with. He’d just have to smile and I’d be like “HI!” I also don’t feel particularly cornered in elevators.

    But I don’t fault the woman for doing what she did. A lot of women are VERY cautious about being alone with strange men, and I totally get that. And there have been MANY situations where i’ve felt something was off and not right, and I have walked away or avoided the situation. Sometimes you just know. And the few times I’ve ignored my instincts, things didn’t turn out well at all.

    He’s got many good points, but man, what a complicated subject.

  4. Also, he is a very thoughtful man, so I have hope that perhaps he’ll read some of the comments and consider their points and maybe see things a bit better from the woman’s point of view. I think men often sometimes forget how difficult it can be for women to assess how dangerous a situation is.

    I recently told someone, in regards to online dating, women have to filter out a lot of shit, both online, and in real life. Sometimes you OVER-filter, because it’s safer and easier than under-filtering.” Filtering isn’t perfect. Sometimes you don’t filter enough, sometimes you filter too much.

    1. I definitely feel you on the “over-filtering” point. I’m often accused of being trigger happy when it comes to blocking people on Twitter, but I feel the <1% of "good guys" I may block accidentally are worth the sacrifice to keep a Twitter feed that's intelligent and friendly.

      1. Ahem… @the_block_bot when you block em ;-) Just remove the @ and we’ll add them so they cannot annoy anyone using the service. We have a look at the timeline so doubtful any “good guys” get in by accident, at least none yet out of 500. Just added the last of @ElevatorGATEs active followers so recently expanded the list a little!

  5. Questlove’s incident reminds me of something that happened to me years ago where I frightened a 20-ish woman without meaning to. I was on my way to work, driving through the snow, and saw a car that had skidded into the shoulder of the somewhat remote rural road. I pulled over to assist. She wasn’t stuck very badly. She opened the window just a crack to speak with me. I figured I could just push her back into the road by bracing myself against her front bumper. Anybody with experience driving in the winter knows that there is a very “feely” sort of science to getting traction when you are stuck. you have to give the car just enough gas, but not too much, and time it with the rocking motion I was imparting to the vehicle. I was wearing myself out pushing while she merely gunned the engine, spinning the tires uselessly. I was trying to explain what I wanted her to do, but she wasn’t quite getting the hang of it. She really wasn’t stuck too badly, I was eager to be on my way, and I thought if I were at the wheel, she would be out in no time. What i said was, “Do you mind if I take the wheel?” She immediately made the most horrified face, gunned the engine forward, reaching an empty unplowed driveway, reversed, and spun going backward. I pushed the front bumper and gave her enough momentum to reach the plowed road. She said “thanks” over her shoulder and sped away.

    Now, dumb me, I was a little tweaked at first. I stopped to help out and barely get a thank you. Then i thought about it. I am a large man, and there wasn’t anybody else around. She was doing exactly what she should have been doing. I was talking to her like she was a man – maybe being a little brusque because I was eager to get to work and felt the problem could quickly be fixed. Maybe things in her life gave her reason to be leery of large men. Of course, my race or hers make no difference in this story. But that was one of many things that taught me that you really can’t treat everybody the same, and to put yourself in other’s shoes for a minute before you speak.

  6. I’m glad you wrote this–was having trouble articulating what bothered me about Questlove’s story (other than the story itself), and you’ve hit on it: both people in the elevator were being judged by their appearances.

  7. Rebecca asks: 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?”

    Well, I’m white, male, middle-class and suburban. I am steeped in privilege – so much so that I doubt I realise the half of it. I’m also larger than average and have a head like a robber’s dog. I’ve been known to frighten small children just by being in their vicinity.

    When I walk down a street late at night, I’m constantly evaluating what sort of a threat the people I see constitute. I think things like – can he overpower me? do I have an escape route? and so on.

    If that’s what I do, I can only imagine that that’s what smaller, slower-running people, with less privilege do – and with good reason.

  8. I guess yes, it’s both.
    Her reaction as a woman towards an unkown large guy might well have been amplified by the fact that he was black.
    We need to talk about racism, especially about the black/brown men are only out to rape white women trope. We need to talk about it both to diminish racism and also because it hurts women, because they have a damn hard time being beieved if the attacker was white.

    1. We need to talk about both sides brought up by Rebecca here.
      – The fear or disdain of brown skin (which I think of black men get the worst of)
      – Sexism among privileged white people & sexism in minority cultures.

      I’m part Indian and part Chinese and have FOB (fresh off the boat) & 1st generation relatives here in the US and I’d have to tell you that the sexism is generally VERY thick on both sides. But it’s different than mainstream white sexism. Not necessarily worse, just….. different. For instance my neighbor is writing a book on female suicide in filipino families due to cultural pressures and the solutions to it, and addressing that sexism problem (talking to the men, supporting the women) is pretty different than addressing sexism in a 6th generation American white family.

      Sometimes I think in prominent feminist communities such as Skepchick, it’s difficult to properly discuss & address the very tricky issue of the intersectionality of sexism and racism. This is because there aren’t enough minority people in these communities and thus you can’t have minority men, women, & transgender people properly discuss & debate issues of race, and then subsequently explain it to the majority.

      As to WHY there aren’t enough strong minority voices in many activism communities, I think it boils down to minorities feeling like their issues are not well understood and that sometimes they feel berated or like they have to explain RACE 101 to too many people. For instance, if you go to many black feminism forums, they talk about mainstream feminism being whitewashed (like so http://www.rooshvforum.com/archive/index.php?thread-20823.html) and no offense, but I think some minority feminist communities would point to Skepchick being somewhat whitewashed.

      I don’t think Skepchick is racist, but it definitely needs A LOT MORE MINORITY FEMALE VOICES. Once we have that, we can properly discuss and understand racial issues here far better than we do now.

      1. Absolutely
        I’m European, so the lines between races and the history is quite different.
        I’m also “lily-white”. (Fun fact: my ancestry isn’t, but people don’t know so I get all the privilege)
        And we urgently need to have the discussion about race, especially when prominent atheists are peddling racist BS like “all rape in Scandinavia was done by muslim men”.
        And we need to have the discussion about sexism and misogyny within those groups that come from more patriarchal cultures.*
        Because if we don’t we’Re at danger of being blatantly racist when talking about sexism and we’re at danger of throwing women under the bus when discussing racism.
        * This is often framed as a problem of “Islam”, excactly to hide the racist undertones. And I’m getting very suspicious when those people bring up gender and sexism because for them it’s just a way to bash others and to feel superior: Look, we treat our women not quite as horrible as those brown people, Now shut up b… and learn to take a compliment!

  9. He talks about being hurt that she didn’t share her floor number. I wonder why he felt owed any piece of personal information? Is it because he’s a “nice guy”? I never give men my room number or floor number. They don’t need it and I don’t owe it no matter how nice they are. Women are not machines you put niceness tokens in until boobs fall out.

    1. Yes I agree. I understand why he felt like his race may have played a factor, but ultimately he was in the wrong here.

      Most men need feminism 101.

    2. Well was the number being withheld because the woman considered him a threat and if so was that because he is black or because he is male and 300lb?

      Questlove and RW should be sent off somewhere to write the definitive book on elevator etiquette together.

  10. It feels pretty shitty to tell a black man that he’s wrong about racism. I’d say it’s more likely that you can’t really often separate racism from not-racism in the thought processes of a lot of people because of how racism functions in a white-supremacist society.

    I can’t always say why I do everything I do, and racist thoughts can certainly inform behavior that isn’t willfully or consciously racist. Racism isn’t always something you do, and certainly not always on purpose. It’s something that pushes on and infects everything. Intersectionality isn’t all about “You were so worried about X that you forgot about Y!”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button