Black Skin Is A Problem In The United States: On Mike Brown And Respectability Politics

Flickr/ Peoples World
Flickr/ Peoples World

In the last few weeks when the national discussion on race has been high due to the death of Mike Brown, we once again engage questions and conversations about how Black bodies, especially Black male bodies, are problematic. And every time these conversations come up, at the back of my mind is the real question that W.E.B. Du Bois asks in his articulation of double-consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk. The question is, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Like Du Bois writes, I too, “seldom answer a word.” Because when it’s all said and done, the dreadful truth is this: Black skin is a problem in the United States.

Mike Brown is just one of many young Black males who didn’t have to die. And so is John Crawford. And Jordan Davis. And Eric Garner. And Trayvon Martin. The list goes on and on. But according to those who must justify Black death for their own sensibilities, there will always be excuses. He may have stolen cigars, he was wearing a hoodie, he shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes illegally, he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun, he shouldn’t have been listening to loud music, etc. The translation of all of these justifications is that Black people, in this case, Black men, are expected at all times to be as perfect as Jesus himself – or possibly face death.


The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Twitter hashtag brought to light the media representations of the Black body and identity. It was an act of resistance and a signal to the news media that the victims of their portrayal are not unaware of their situation. The news media especially is complicit in anti-Blackness, such that certain bodies are criminalized and defamed even when unjustly facing death – Black (and Brown) bodies, that is. While those who bear White bodies such as Elliot Rodger, are given the benefit of suffering psychological illnesses. Nobody ever seems to ask about the psychology of a people who live in a system that is anti their very existence.

When a Black male friend I talked to last week brought up the media representations, he said to me, “Maybe it if it was one of us, you know. One of us private-school, graduate degree, ‘so incredibly well-spoken’ Black people who died like this. Maybe then, everyone would finally get it.” I laughed, cynically. I told him, “I’m sure they’d find a way to dig up Facebook photos of us partying too hard in college or something. And then they’d say we deserved to die.” Perhaps given our social positions, that is not likely. But I’m convinced the news media would certainly try.

Still, that is the state of respectability politics today. My Blackness, which may be different from Mike Brown’s Blackness is such that it renders Whiteness some comfort around Black people like me. (That is, until I bring up issues like race or ask for my hair not to be touched. Or when I challenge their ideas of Black femaleness or African-ness or all other things that make Whiteness uncomfortable.) Mike Brown’s Blackness, by his mere appearance, is seen as threatening and suspicious in White spaces. And our respectability politics is such that, by virtue of him doing anything but conforming to what Whiteness deems appropriate, the consequences that ensue are seen as deserved.


Sometimes I think Black bodies were worth more in this country when they were considered property. And these thoughts were prominent as I paid attention to the conversations that were going on in White spaces about Ferguson. I wanted to scream most of the time. I wanted to shake people and ask, “What about the young man? What about the mother that just lost her child? What about the family?” I often kept my cool and discussed things with as much as calm as I could. The Angry Black Girl police are always watching you know, though I care less and less for them every day. But I also know that everyone loses when everyone is trying to win, instead of trying to do the right thing.

That we need to start valuing Black lives is not a rhetorical motto or something to say to make yourself feel like a good person – it is a call to humanity. Because Blackness throughout the world but especially here, is in pain. And it’s not a pain that is resolved after a few decades of polite conversation and removing “The Colored Bathroom” signs. Blackness is in a pain that can only be resolved by digging up the wounds of generations past, and laying it out for all to see and feel. And not only that, but for all to imagine themselves as having a stake in resolving these wounds. It is a pain that has often brought power to the people who bear this identity and it must continue to do so. But this power is something that must not be thought of as belonging to someone else, and therefore needing permission; this power is something that you take.

It seems to me then, that Blackness in the United States needs another emancipation. But it’s not one that only requires a legal recognition or political affirmation or social substantiation, to mark its existence. No, this kind of emancipation is first and foremost, moral. And this moral emancipation ultimately begins and ends with deconstructing the confines of what Whiteness claims Blackness can and cannot be – ironically, paradoxically, and confusingly. This emancipated Blackness is unafraid to be unapologetically Black, whatever that might look like. And whatever that might look like, it knows its humanity needn’t be contingent on anything, and is always kept intact.

And when a body that bares this Blackness is laid to rest for reasons that are unjust, fellow humans do not rationalize, they mourn. TC mark

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