Ken and I have been friends for two years. We usually meet up for a yoga class or cocktails where we dive into and complain about work in the service industry and our most recent dating adventures. However, given the climate of our country in 2020, our conversations have taken a deeper dive.
Now, we talk about identity, risk, and the fear of a future without real/systemic change. Unlike me, Ken is Black, and he’s also gay.
“It’s a double whammy” he said “but Black always trumps Gay. I can hide being Gay. Everyone shits on you when you’re Black.” He explains that the gay community is no exception.
At this point, we start to talk about the Black family that was held at gunpoint by Phoenix PD last year when their 4-year-old took a doll from the Dollar Store. Surveillance shows the cops surrounding the family, with one cop yelling that he would “put a fucking cap in their fucking heads.” Cops handcuffed and assaulted the father, threw him down on the hot pavement and proceeded to kick and punch him. A cop then pointed his gun at the visibly pregnant mother, child in arms, and grabbed them both by their necks. Officers demanded the mother put her child down on the hot pavement but she refused, so the officer proceeded to grab the child while saying that he would shoot her in front of her children. Ken says stuff like that happens all the time.
Ken grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio where he says the racial inequality was more visible because there was a larger Black population. His mother once saved up to buy a mint green 1971 Chevy Impala, which was promptly spray painted with the word “Nigger” as it sat outside their home. “Little stuff like that happened all the time.”
I’m shocked that this memory for him is just a little thing. I try to imagine how my own family would have reacted to an experience like this. Then I try to imagine a lifetime of these experiences. It’s honestly overwhelming and hard to imagine. This is the perspective many white people lack.
Ken said his mother raised him to be more than just another statistic. She focuses on manners, education, and dialect, as if the way you speak, at least when you’re Black, could be the difference between life and death. She told him that White people will always be watching “so be a good example.” He can’t even count how many times he’s been pulled over and handcuffed for no real reason. He always makes sure his ducks are in a row—keeping a clean record, having license registration and insurance up to date.
Ken recounts a time when he was pulled over by multiple cop cars while riding in a van with friends because “the vehicle looked suspicious.” Everyone was pulled out of the vehicle and asked for identification. Ken accidentally said his social security number wrong, and was handcuffed and put in the back of a cop car, along with anyone who had priors. Even after the mistake was remedied, the cop was still reluctant to let him go.
This reminds me of a time when a white female friend of mine was pulled over for making an illegal turn while intoxicated. The car contained drugs and alcohol and all the passengers were intoxicated. The cops never searched the car or questioned any of the passengers. The driver, who was visibly intoxicated, passed a field sobriety test, so the cops let her go and apologized for the inconvenience.
Ken then tells me about a trip he took to Vegas for a friend’s birthday. They decided to splurge on a VIP table at a club, and at one point, Ken left to smoke. He showed the bouncer his VIP wristband and tried to re-enter the club. The bouncer refused to let him in saying “Those people over there spent a lot of money to get in.” Ken argued with the bouncer for over an hour until his friends came out looking for him. Ken said he didn’t want to make a scene and ruin his friend’s birthday, so he let it go.
Ken calmly recounts a lifetime of these memories. “You have to live in spite of it” he says. “If you get angry, you’re just another angry Black person in their eyes, and it overshadows the message.” But the reality is that Black anger is justified, but when expressed, it can lead to arrest, incarceration, and worse.
According to Ken, “it’s hip to be a BLM ally right now, [but] it needs to be more than a trend or a hashtag. Local businesses are supporting Black culture now, but why did it take so long to happen? And will it continue? Black culture exists for more than one month a year.”
Although I’ve always considered myself an ally and have tried to stay invested in and aware of the racial issues in this country, the fact is that I’m white, and I’m able to ignore the issues and stay ignorant and safe.
So the questions I have to ask myself now is what will I do with this new awareness? What will white America do with it? And what am I willing to do (and risk) beyond the posting of a hashtag on social media?
Katrina Bray is a contributor to TRR.
Photography by Kurt Viers.