There are many events I thought would be the subject that returned me to my blog. The summer hiatus was welcome and productive. I thought I would return with a discussion of media literacy, politics, filmmaking, or some other academic lens. I thought I might also return with a chronicle of our summer adventures. Instead it was a party and its aftermath. Our building, for the first time since we’ve lived in the loop (nearly five years), was flooded with partying college students. As someone who teaches undergrads you can imagine how pleased I was to finish up a batch of grading, head to bed, only to realize there would be no rest on this night. Nevertheless, I was patient. I understood. College kids having a party. Fine.
After an hour of loud music, my husband went down to investigate. The entire sixth floor as well as the main lobby of the building were overflowing with bodies. While there was much variety in those bodies ( my husband’s account and the surveillance tapes indicate most of the kids were white) many of the people in the building were only able to remark on the black bodies and declared later that the building was “full of thugs,” and they “could have been raped!” I was stunned. How did someone experiencing the same reality I was jump from silly college students (they looked like underclassmen) to dangerous monsters. While we are not often subject to college kid antics in our space, we have certainly never suffered an invasion of rapist thugs… but that’s what they “saw.” I can’t figure out how they “read” thug onto the bodies of nervous, well dressed, young adults. Like most young adults trying too hard to be individual, they were all dressed the same. So. It was the brown skin. The black skin. It was blackness.
For days after the party I felt horrified to consider how close I’ve been living to people like this. My children have grown up living next to people who have a history of targeting black men for persecution. The response to the party has reminded others in the building of instances of drunken accusation leveled at black residents “He tried to rape me by the elevator. It started right over there…” As I mentioned earlier, there are surveillance cameras in the lobby and elevator spaces. Her account of being pawed in the lobby was investigated and proven false. What a relief? No. What a crime. A crime that ultimately went unpunished because really, what’s the harm? She accused him. She lied. Nothing happened to him. Wrong. Much violence was done to him. He had to see himself through her eyes and the eyes of our neighbors who believed without a shadow of doubt he MUST have wanted to rape her even if she couldn’t prove it. Even if he didn’t try to rape her, he probably still wanted to. Right?
Last week I worked through Cooley’s theory of the Looking Glass Self with my sociology students. I patiently explained to them that our concept of self is guided by how others see us. As I walked through the lesson I felt a rising tide of anxiety. I have children. I have children who are in the midst of developing their social selves and they will look to the world to guide them. They will see themselves through the eyes of a world that… you fill in the blank.
I must wonder how long it will take before my children will appear to these people as monsters. I will not call them neighbors. I no longer consider them to be. My children’s experiences, their wonder, their innocence will be rendered invisible and invalid by a tainted gaze. This gaze denigrates their father and tells them their mother possesses neither intelligence nor beauty. The babies you declared so beautiful will morph into rapists in your mind and this shift will feel comfortable, natural, right, to you. You are at peace with this paradox. I am not. I am disgusted by your gaze. It is a dangerous and debilitating thing and I consider it an act of war.
A most intimate war is being waged. A war in which perhaps you are a participant. A war that aims weapons at the core of one’s being. In a better world this ideological war against black boys and men would not exist. This world that prevents people from seeing what is right in front of them; their vision filtered through the disdain they cultivate and I am charged with being the “better” woman. “Turn your cheek.” We do not live in a better world so I must take up arms and protect our sons from ever seeing themselves the way our “neighbors” see them because that would tear at their very souls. Hate is ruinous for all involved. Even for those who are innocent.