Whenever I speak about society’s apathy towards supporting major world issues, one term that I constantly reference in debates and arguments is “tragedy fatigue.” This is a term that references how our society’s constant exposure to tragic events [wars, murders, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.] has desensitized our collective psyches. Although I’m grateful that so many of us have been able to respond to the Trayvon Martin incident with action instead of apathy, the circumstances surrounding his death have reminded me of another type of fatigue that my sector of society deals with FAR too much: “Proper” Negro fatigue.
10 days ago, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote a thoughtful and insightful article called “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin” in which he questioned, not only the racial motives behind Trayvon’s murder, but also the exhaustion the entire Black community feels to avoid stereotyping and to “fit in” with the rest of the society by not performing any acts that can be grounds for being shot or jailed. This is a theory that has always hit home for me personally, especially growing up in a community where Black people were very scarce. One of the reasons there is so much anger in the Black community over this case is because society dictates Black folk must be “proper” negroes to avoid getting in trouble with the law or getting killed – but if Trayvon can get shot with a bag of Skittles and Ice Tea for looking “suspicious” then what chance do ANY of us stand?
The inherent social contract that modern western society has placed on Black folks is this: If you want upward social mobility, a good job, fair and equitable treatment and avoid being pulled over, arrested, constantly harassed, expelled from school or murdered, then don’t LOOK or ACT like a NIGGER. Don’t be stereotypically loud, obnoxious, combative or arrogant. Don’t wear gang colours, baggy pants, doo-rags, bandanas, wave caps or Timberlands. Not only were we told to act JUST like the REST of society – we were told to act BETTER. And if we acted the same as others, we faced STIFFER consequences and that was just the way it was. And you know what the WORST part about this deal is – we TOOK it.
We collectively agreed to DO better by taking on more of a burden than ANY other group in our society has to. Our parents and grandparents constantly tried to install in us the importance of what NOT to wear to school or work, how NOT to talk in public ESPECIALLY when white folks were around and how NOT to look like a thug or gangster. Anyone who grew up in a Black home has heard these things listed off to them COUNTLESS times. Basically, if we acted like PROPER negroes, we could AVOID being the next Emmett Till.
And then Trayvon came along…
George Zimmerman’s best friend Frank Taaffe recently stated in an interview that if Trayvon had simply identified himself and explained why he was there, the shooting never would have taken place. Do I believe that? Not really. But I DO believe that the incident escalated when George, who had NO BUSINESS bothering Trayvon, got up in his face and Trayvon, like any young man would [especially in the face of an overzealous racist], told him to “screw off.” See, that’s NOT what “proper” negroes are supposed to do – in society’s minds ‘that’s what Black THUGS do.’ Now, it’s perfectly fine for a proper white person to tell someone to screw off, but for us, even when asked such a ridiculous and racially charged question, we are suppose to invoke our humble acquiescence even though every fibre of our being wants to respond with abject RAGE.
It is absolutely EXHAUSTING to have to constantly wonder how your hairstyle, clothes, and slightest of actions [i.e. avoiding putting your hands in your waistband so people don't think your signalling you have a gun]. It is EXHAUSTING to constantly have to be a “safe’ caricature of yourself to avoid social harm. But it’s even MORE EXHAUSTING to know that even when you do EVERYTHING a “proper negro” is suppose to, you can STILL end up just as DEAD as the most improper thugs.
This Is Your Conscience