When I think of the two cases of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, two young Black people who were shot and killed after getting into car accidents and seeking help, I have all of the feelings. I feel a lot of heartbreak for their loved ones. And I feel fearful. For myself and other Black folks, about what could happen to us if we are ever in distress. If we can’t trust human decency and the basic social fabric that we are supposedly entitled to as human beings, and if we are shot instead of saved by those entrusted to protect our lives, I’m left with questions about what to do when Black and in need of help. And, I keep on coming back to privilege, and the absolutely, completely, totally devastating reality that we, as Black people, aren’t even guaranteed a right to life when we are in need of assistance.
Let me digress for a moment here.
I had a discussion with a classmate yesterday about transit police, who are known to be a bit titchy at the best of times. One student said that when they are checking tickets, she will often feign not having hers to push their limits a bit, and see what they do. As a “form of resistance.” And I thought about the white privilege inherent in even being able to engage in such a small act of resistance. Because we see people of colour removed from the trains even when they have tickets. I’ve seen deportation threatened when racialized folks don’t have their tickets (the officers have forced them from the train and called for backup and everything). I have heard stories in other cities of Black men having their passes torn up by transit officers while being told to “go back where you come from.” I certainly have not seen this happen to white people, and neither in my own personal experiences, nor in stories I’ve been told, have I encountered tales of brave allies stepping in to do something about it.
This aside is not the story of a loss of life in tragic circumstances that were clearly based on racism and fear and privilege. But it is an example of the ways that certain things can be taken for granted by those that hold privilege. That riding the bus can be a given, that playing a small prank on an officer of the law will not end in tragedy, and probably, that you can get into a car accident, and presuming you survive the accident, you can also survive the process of going for help.
There are a lot of things to talk about when we talk about the killings of Ms. McBride and Mr. Ferrell. We can talk about gun control, because clearly not everyone should be bearing a gun, discriminating freely. We can talk about fear of a Black planet (or frankly, fear of a Black person ringing a doorbell or knocking on a door because they NEED YOUR DAMN HELP). We can talk about the virtual media silence about these terrible, terrible deaths. But I want to also talk about white privilege and how it functions. I want to talk about how it makes it so that I cannot, with any presumption of safety, ask for help when I need it. And how the things that some people can take for granted are things that could result in my death, the death of my loved ones, or the death of any member of my community. And they do result in deaths. All of the damn time.
Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell had a right to seek and receive help. And instead I find myself writing about their deaths. I think about this unjust world in which we live as Black folks, and I cry for them both.
[Image via Black Youth Project]