Hands Up / Guns Out: On Being Brown and Alive -The Toast

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whyamisobrownThree weeks ago I stood on the nearly one-hundred-year-old steps of a building on the University of Michigan campus with my hands raised in the air. The building happened to be somewhere I’d worked – the graduate library—and even represented the reason I’d moved cross-country to attend information science school. I loved that library, loved those stone steps, loved the view onto the Diag on a fall afternoon when I’d walk out after a work binge, an ambitious graduate student excited about all the things I might accomplish. But standing there also reminded me of everything I’d hated, still hate, about my experiences in Michigan.

I didn’t have my hands in the air because I was in trouble; it was part of a protest in support and in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and Mike Brown. The rally was modest, maybe fifty people at most, and was mostly black undergraduates, with a fair showing of right-hearted white people. I wasn’t surprised to be the only Latina, but my hopes to see another brown face on this lonely campus mean I always check and notice. 

As we all stood on the steps with our hands in the air so a group photo could be taken, passing white affluent students, who’d largely previously treated our group like an obstacle to be avoided, began to take notice. Immediately out came the I-Phones to post Tweets and Vines. As my arms started to ache from being in the air, I wondered, where were these (white) people and their iPhones when we were honoring Mike Brown’s life fifteen minutes ago? Why did no one stop and update their social media with our brown faces then? 

Earlier that same week, in that same library, I’d been intensely working on a project to debug some code, while working the reference desk. I was so engaged with what I was doing I felt (a little) guilty for not presenting enough of a responsive, open demeanor. Evidently, I need not have felt bad about this because just a few moments later a (white) student aggressively approached the desk, thrust his resume onto my keyboard, where I was typing, and said “Here, I have something for you to do.” In response to my look of baffled irritation, he responded: “It’s my resume. I’m applying for a job as a waiter at a place nearby, uh, so…now you have something to do?” Oh, Of course. As if I’d been waiting for something to do, from him. I don’t think he even noticed I was there until he wanted something from me. 

As I stood there on the steps while those white kids stared and Instagram’d, I remembered a dozen examples of the ways in which my race made me invisible to white people on this campus, except for those moments when it would render me startlingly Visible and Other. I remembered the way teachers in my graduate level seminars wouldn’t seem to see me raising my hand until the rare time a topic of racial import was at hand, at which point staring at me and asking what I thought suddenly became crucial to their teaching methods. 

I remembered rude white alumni visiting the reference desk and trying to cajole, harass and simply bully me into granting them special access privileges or extended book loans, neither of which I had the power to do, incidentally. If a friendly solution could be reached, too many would then invariably ask where I’m from or what languages I speak or, more bluntly, “what are you?” I remembered the people I worked closely with who refused to acknowledge me in passing, and would call me Some Whiter Version of My Name when forced to talk to me for some reason.

I thought of the local library that wanted to hire me so much, but only to work at the one branch that predominately served low-income, black and brown people. Despite my technology skills being a big part of the cited impetuous behind the decision to hire me, I’d be working at the branch with the slowest, lowest bandwidth, which patrons told me rendered the computers nearly useless. It turned out this was an intentional choice by the (white) head of technology, who cited the fact that most of the “downtown” patrons were just using the internet to “screw around”. “It’s the perfect spot for you!” they had said. I lasted three hours.

My cheeks started to burn in humiliation and anger, my arms ached and the hives I get whenever I get too stressed started to raise and welt. I stood there anyway because I could and Michael Brown, as well as too many nameless Others, can’t anymore.


Through the grace of whatever god and my own common sense, I had never seen a gun pulled on someone until a few months ago. 

That is not to say I had never been close to police violence. Nearly ten years ago, on my first day at a new job as a pet adoption counselor, a Mexican man who lived with his family across the street from the shelter was shot dead by the Phoenix Police’s S.W.A.T. team. He’d been waving what turned out to be a pellet gun, was acting erratically, and after a tense several hour stand-off was killed by a sniper who’d set-up on the front walkway of the shelter. At the time, I was profoundly disturbed by the shooting, but I had been away, adopting cats out at a far-flung PetSmart, so it felt like something that had happened near me, not to me. Now I know that any act of violence against one brown body is an act against all brown bodies, especially when it’s the police doing the brutalizing, but then all I knew for sure was I didn’t sleep right for weeks after.

Last Cinco de Mayo weekend, I took a wrong turn while driving to an event in Detroit. The community archive I helped create and work for was celebrating the opening of a special exhibition. It was the product of months, even years, of work by over twenty undergraduate and graduate students, several professors, community members, and myself. The event was taking place in Southwestern Detroit, or Mexicantown to the locals, and I was excited and humbled to be a part of it.  

On the way there, I took a wrong exit on the freeway and somehow ended up in a Canada Only exit lane. No worries, I thought, surely there’s somewhere I can turn around without incident. I was extra proud of being Brown that day and wasn’t going to worry about the police, especially when I’d made such a simple, minor error. Or so I told myself.

At the duty-free store just this side of America and a bridge to Windsor, Canada,  a bored-looking clerk gave me a form and told me to wait in my car in a little concrete barricaded parking lot, and a White Jeep would come collect me. As I waited ten and then twenty and then forty minutes, other cars did join me: a Brown Suburban driven by a brown-looking guy, a Black SUV with a white woman and her mom inside. After what seemed to be an eternity, though perhaps was just a few minutes of rolled-down window conversation with the SUV ladies, the White Jeep with flashing lights appeared yonder. 

The Brown Suburban raced over, and when the White Jeep seemed to be leaving with just the Suburban, the SUV ladies and I hit the gas and hustled to catch up. I’m sure we all were overjoyed!  Free from the confines of the concrete barricade and very nearly to a frontage road, I’d started to happily anticipate leaving, and the tamales awaiting me at the event, when I noticed flashing police lights in my rear mirror, closing fast. 

I watched with concern that transformed to horror as an Immigration and Naturalization Services SUV roared-up from behind me and then parked at an aggressive diagonal, blocking my way and forcing me to stop. The door of the SUV flew open and a white cop who looked like an extra from the worst of the Ferguson Crew, right down to the flak jacket, jumped out, gun drawn and pointed. He yelled and ran towards the driver’s side of the Brown Suburban, his finger on the trigger. All I could think was,  “He’s going to shoot that guy. He’s going to shoot that guy. He’s going to shoot that guy.” 

You might think you’d be brave enough to intervene in a situation like this –I did anyway–but when it was happening all I wanted was to not be dead or arrested on the way to a community art show I created with my goddamn master’s degree. The only outcome from any action I could imagine taking was my being tased or shot, and I was already too scared to move anyway.

 As the other officer got out and approached my car, quite calmly as compared to Flak Jacket, I was more afraid of la migra than I’d ever been. I was also more enraged. All of this for a wrong turn? For a bad exit? That my fucking phone directed me to? I’m seeing some brown dude about to get murdered by an INS agent because The Lumia Crapola-Cheapest-SmartPhone-There-Is doesn’t understand the difference between Interstate-94 and the frontage road? 

After all that, ultimately nothing happened. While my cop asked me a bunch of questions, mostly related to drugs and the smuggling thereof (if modern policing stereotyping says Black Boys are dangerous, than Latinas must always be smuggling drugs), I couldn’t see what has happening with the Suburban in front of me. Evidently whatever it was amounted to nothing as that vehicle was allowed through the gate after just a few minutes. 

Then it was my turn to show my Official Duty Free Store Information Form to the toothless guy who drove the White Jeep and ran the Freedom Gate. I had to solemnly swear I had purchased no duty-free goods. When he aggressively asked if I needed directions, I said sure to appease him but I didn’t listen. I knew my direction would be to take a right and floor it. I felt like a criminal, though I hadn’t done anything wrong beyond trusting a crappy GPS system to direct me to an Interstate exit. I wanted to be polite and then get the fuck out of there, to anywhere that wasn’t there. I thought it figured that the first time I’d see a gun pulled would be in Detroit, by a cop, on a brown guy that looked a little like me.

untitledWhen I arrived at the exhibition, I was greeted by a packed exhibition space full of images and stories of brave Chicana women who’d done remarkable things thirty years ago. Women who’d raised their children in the fields alongside them, where they worked, harvesting tomatoes or grapes or lettuce from dawn to dusk. Women who’d shepherded each of those same children through the removal of the cantaloupe sized tumors the pesticides inevitably caused to grow in their young bodies. Women who left abusive husbands, started businesses, organized walkouts and protests, ran for and were elected to local and state political offices. Women who risked arrest, brutality, and far worse, but were brave enough to do it all anyway. These stories were not new to me, I’d worked imaging, collecting and organizing the materials that illustrated and preserved them, but that day I heard them in a new way – I heard myself in them. 

Living in Michigan has meant finding myself in places I’d never thought I’d be. On the steps of the library with my hands in the air, detained and questioned by Homeland Security for a wrong turn, at an exhibit dedicated to brilliant, brave Chicana women that I helped create. Each of these times, the sudden visibility reminded me of how often Latinas are rendered invisible, anonymous, and mute, despite the countless contributions we make to our society as thinkers, creators, and artists. It reminded me that I long for a visibility defined on my own terms, based on what I see when I look into my own heart and mind, not what you see when you see my brown skin and my hands up.


Rose Espinoza is a queer, woman of color writing from Southeast Michigan.

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