Last year, I was riding a rented bike through a neighborhood in Alameda, California, while visiting my children at their other mother’s home. They have lived there for three years and I visit frequently, often several times a week.
This time, a white woman stopped me and asked if I lived there.
I responded no, and asked if she lived there. I asked whether she knew all the people who lived in the area and whether she would have stopped me if I was white.
She did not respond. But I think I know the answer.
Lately, the news has been full of stories like these. It’s all too common for black people like me to draw unwanted attention.
In late April, a white woman who acquired the nickname “BBQ Becky” called the Oakland Police Department to report a group of black picnickers who were having a barbeque.
“It’s illegal to have charcoal in this part of the park,” she is seen saying on a video of the incident, which went viral. It occasioned parodies in which the concerned woman is shown calling the cops on Rosa Parks sitting on the bus, President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and Meghan Markle marrying Prince Harry. She even made a brief, disapproving appearance on Saturday Night Live.
On April 14, 2018 a manager at Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia called police to report two black men for “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” The men were handcuffed, booked and held for nearly nine hours before being released without charge. The incident led to public apologies and a nationwide Starbucks employee training.
On April 30, 2018 police were summoned to an Airbnb in Rialto, California, when four guests, three of them black, were seen leaving with their luggage. “Got surrounded by the police for being black in a white neighborhood,” wrote one of the guests, filmmaker Donisha Prendergast, the granddaughter of Bob Marley. There were no arrests.
And at Yale University on May 8, 2018 a black graduate student was grilled by police after someone reported her for taking a nap in a dormitory common room. “You’re in a Yale building and we need to make sure that you belong here,” one the responding officers informed her.
All the calls were unwarranted and all were made by white people about black folks.
On May 20, 2018 a protest barbeque was held in the same park in Oakland where BBQ Becky called the cops. “Unlike the civil rights movement, we aren’t fighting for our rights,” noted one of the organizers, first-grade teacher Logan Cortez. “Now we’re fighting for the right to simply live within the law.”
#DrivingWhileBlack and #ShoppingWhileBlack have been documented for years. Now #LivingWhileBlack appears to be the new front line for implicit racism.
Black folks have every right to question why going about their daily lives minding their own business is seen as a threat — especially considering the unfortunate tendency of police to shoot first and ask questions later when black people are involved.
In addition to the implicit bias training that Starbucks is providing to its employees, we need a broader and more encompassing training for others. We must all confront our implicit biases, and think twice before bringing police into a situation where people may get hurt.
Our lives depend on it. We should be able to shop, drive, nap, use an Airbnb even if we are black. #BlackLivesMatter.