The Police Camera Shows Us #BlackBoyJoy Can’t Exist, Not When Guns Are Drawn

A few days ago the Grand Rapids Police department released a body camera video from an incident involving two officers, and five black boys.

The police were looking for an armed robbery suspect, and apparently these boys fit the description. The description apparently being black male. None of these boys turned out to be who they were looking for. The police officers later visited these boys’ families, apologized, and thanked them for their compliance to the investigation. Not long after, the Police Chief for the Grand Rapids Police Department issued a public statement saying, “The officers showed empathy, they understood the ages of the children….They did their due diligence in terms of not putting themselves in harm’s way but they also showed that they appreciated the fact that these were young men.’’ In other words, if they could do it over again, they would not have changed a thing.

What these police officers, police chief, and supporters of #BlueLives fail to realize is that these were not young men–they were boys, just playing ball on the block. At what point do black boys cease being boys and become men? Black boyhood has always been erased and diminished by the state. No amount of empathy from these police officers could give that innocence back to these kids, not when guns were drawn.

I don’t doubt that there will be people who will see this video and justify it. They will say these boys did the right thing by listening to these police officers. They will say this is the job these #BlueLives men have to do, and we must comply unquestionably. There will be people who will applaud how calm these officers remained, and that they are to thank for the situation not getting out of hand, when in fact these officers were the ones who planted the seed of fear and terror on these children.

It’s a video that reminds us no matter how hard we try, #BlackBoyJoy doesn’t actually exist. We may attempt to wish it into existence, but at any moment the state can strip that bliss from us. The same joy that these boys were channeling, could have been their death. Black boy joy killed Tamir Rice and Trayvon. These boys could have been no different.

 

 

A White 6th Grader’s Letter on #BlackLivesMatter and Being an Ally

Recently, four 6th graders at the school I work at wrote a letter to President Barack Obama on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s a powerful letter, and you can read it here. So powerful is the letter, in fact, it received thousands of shares, tv stations ran the story, and just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama even wrote back.

What’s more inspiring is while all of this was going on, one of the boys’ classmates, a white student named Louis, wrote his own letter to the President–largely inspired by what his four classmates had already written.  

Louis’s letter isn’t attempting to overshadow what the boys have done. It’s a letter of encouragement, and more importantly, it is an example of what white allyship can adequately look like. This may be an issue that impacts Black youth at disproportionate rates to whites, but white youth should still be contributing to this movement. Silence is its own form of oppression, and this movement–this world–could use more people like Louis, where at just 12 years old, he is understanding his privilege and that he also  has a social responsibility: to be an ally.

 

Here is the letter:

Dear Mr. President,

Inequality is a huge problem in our modern day world, even at a young, elementary school age. Studies have shown that black students were three times more likely to be expelled than white students in the 2011-2012 school year. It is hard to imagine that a black child who is doing the same thing as a white child is being treated worse. I feel as though I should give back to people of color in every way possible to make up for the harsh injustices that have happened to people of color in the past. I try to remind myself that I am not one of the many people who believe that the color of someone’s skin makes them better or worse than another person.

In the news I hear about all the horrible things that have gone on involving inequality. I hear about the killing of Michael Brown, I hear about the statistics that are so far from fair, but I also hear about my schoolmates. I am so proud of my four schoolmates for standing up and bringing inequality under a spotlight. They wrote a letter that has gone so far, to thousands of internet shares and a place in the news. I feel strong when I know that they made a difference.

But they also received hate from people who wrote rude things, because these people knew that if they wrote it on a viral article they would get attention. And that disgusts me. I posted a video for a school project on YouTube about the importance of Black Lives Matter. Somehow, someone found the video and posted hateful comments toward me and people of color. He assumed I was African American and said “…As long as too many blacks commit too many crimes, like over half the murders, you are just another scumbag justifying your races criminal behavior your dindu attitude.”  

This ruined my day. It ruined my day because he said those incredibly racist things, but also because he assumed I was an African American.This ruined my day because he thought there was no such thing as an ally, someone who stands up for people who are being bullied when they are not. Every Time I read a disturbing fact about white people treating black people with inequality I feel emotional. I feel emotional about the injustice of it, but I also feel emotional about the fact that I am white. I wish that I did not have something in common with this person who is being so rude to their victim but also to themselves. This person who commented assumed I was black because I cared, but just because I am white and these issues do not affect me does not mean that I do not care.

When you bully someone of a different skin color, you are bullying one of your fellow  human beings. And I say bully because anybody who treats someone differently because of their skin color is a bully. And everyone has been bullied, just on lower or higher levels. They are no different from yourselves. If everyone hated different looking or thinking people it would be a messed up world.

The whole reason I am writing this letter to you is because after reading my schoolmates letter, I learned about the Black Lives Matter movement in America. After reading so many letters, facts, and articles I have learned that black lives do matter and inequality is a massive issue in America that needs to be addressed. Everyone has the right to be treated equal, and that’s not happening.

I encourage you to read their letter as well. We all would like to conference with you about this problem that needs to be addressed. Inequality is an emergency that need to be tended to.

~Louis, on behalf of Keidy, Zayd, Bryson, and Phoenix.

Barack Obama Responds to the Four African American 6th Graders’ Letter on #BlackLivesMatter

Sixth-Grade-Boys-Pen-Letter-To-Obama-660x450

It’s been almost 3 months since I first shared the letter from the four African American 6th graders–Zayd, Phoenix, Keidy, and Bryson–addressed to President Barack Obama. In the letter, they point to the depressing statistics facing African American youth today, and inform Obama that as an African American in the highest elected office, he has a duty to helping find solutions to institutional racism.

The letter has since touched many hearts, and received thousands of shares over social media sites. National news sites, blogs, and TV stations have all kept these boys’ words alive. Since the letter has been posted, these boys have been asked to speak on panels, recite their letter in public, and answer questions so many people now have for them. They were even nominated and won the Human Rights Heroes award in their hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.

And just last week, four large envelopes appeared at Wildwood Elementary School. Each addressed to one of the boys, with a return address of none other: the White House. These four 6th grade boys wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, and the President wrote back.

LetterFromObamaThese kids, are just that–kids. But they are black, and thus have to learn harsher lessons of what adulthood means earlier on, because society doesn’t put their childhood into account. They found this out the hard way when racist comments began trolling the various websites their letter was posted on.

But more importantly, they are learning that the power of words transcends racist bigots, and can go all the way to the White House.

I’m proud of what these boys have been able to achieve, and look forward to seeing what more they have to say, because this is just the beginning.

Here is the full letter from President Barack Obama to the boys:

Dear, Keidy, Zayd, Pheonix, and Bryson

Thank you for your powerful letter. I appreciate hearing from you, and I admire your courage in speaking out on the important issues our Nation faces. When any part of our American family doesn’t feel fairly treated, that’s a problem for all of us–it means we are not as strong as a country as we could be. All young people deserve to live, learn and grow in safe and supportive environments, and providing your generation with every chance to realise your full potential is a priority for me in everything I do as President.

As a nation, we have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I have witnessed that in my own life. Still, important work remains to be done. That is why my administration is working to build better relations between law enforcement and those they serve, and we will keep striving everyday to help communities heal and recover so students like you can reach for your highest aspiration.

As you continue to build on your unique talents and skills, I hope you never forget that ours is a country where, with hard work and determination, you can accomplish anything you can imagine. So dream big, always look to help others, and put your best effort into everything you do–because I’m counting on your generation to chart our Nation’s course.

Again, thank you for writing. I hope you will remain committed in both thought and action toward the solutions needed to help shape a brighter tomorrow. Please remember your President expects great things from you.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

‘Ali Bomaye!’: Thank You For Being Unapologetically Black

AliI was 12 years old when my father took me to see ‘Ali’ in theaters. A 12-year-old black boy, staring at who I wanted to become. what black boy wouldn’t want to be the champ?

I got chills with his speech on why he wouldn’t go fight in Vietnam:

“I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”

At 12 years old, I had never felt so proud to be black.

In Ali, I saw greatness in the ring, and unapologetic blackness outside of it. His blackness was in his loyalty towards the Nation of Islam, and how it became what defined him and his politics. His blackness was in the way he walked, talked, and lived–black, and unapologetic.  He wasn’t just an athlete, he was a black messiah (speaking up for his people), as well as a soon-to-be  black martyr–crucified for being brutally honest and politically aware about the contradictions of American racism. When he was drafted to fight in the war, his response:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

ALIpressHe called things how he saw them. He didn’t care what the backlash could–or inevitably would–be. He was convinced in what he believed in, and he never was afraid to say so.

By today’s standards, Ali doesn’t exist. We have yet to have another black athlete that has carried the same voice and with the same platform Ali had.  In a day when most athletes lose their integrity in order to be the best, Ali’s greatness was in his unwavering integrity.

Through all his public antics, the world was witnessing the emancipation of the black athlete in real-time. The world saw a black man take control over what he wanted to say, and how he would say it. Even when his title was stripped from him over his anti-war statements, Ali remained in control.

In a way most athletes have trouble doing, Ali took control of his own destiny through choice. He chose to join the Nation of Islam. He chose to be an outspoken critique on American racism. He chose to speak out against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as contradictory to the unresolved racial tensions in America. He chose to avoid the draft because he was so committed to his beliefs. And because of such decisions, one could make the case that being stripped of the title was his own choice.

ALIsmileAli was freer than most black athletes have ever been, and  the freedom was in his courage to not back down, and to be the black man he always was, and that the world needed to see. Racism had defined his life, like it did for so many other black athletes and celebrities of that time. Ali just chose to embrace it.

Muhammad Ali came at a time when black people needed a voice to validate their concerns and anger, but also to be unapologetically black. He was that voice that told  you to be as bold and black as you could be in every possible situation–never back down.

So, to Ali: Thank you for everything you did. For inspiring me to also be unapologetically black, and to never be afraid to speak truth to power.

 

The Importance of Black History

Last month, I was invited to speak at Amherst Regional High School as the keynote speaker for their Black History Month Teach-In, here is the full talk.

The Nuances Behind Charlie Hebdo, and How We Act

461143542-people-gather-at-union-square-in-reaction-to-the.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeOn Wednesday, we witnessed 12 people people pay the ultimate price for free speech. I of all people know how valuable free speech is, this blog is a testament to that sacredness. But we need to be honest about how we honor these lives, and to what extent we criticize what Charlie Hebdo stood up to. There is a fine line between defending free speech, and perpetuating racism through ignorance.

As in any event of violence, the appropriate–and no doubt expected–response to such events should be remorse and sympathy. All of us who were affected by the Boston Bombings, the shootings of Sandy Hook Elementary, and more recently, the deaths of black men to the state stand in solidarity with the people of France.

The most important thing for these events is to remember that sometimes random acts of violence are just that: random. To place them in a larger context of systemic problems can be accurate, but sometimes we end up only fueling the problem. As so many people did last week with the shooting of two NYPD officers by someone who is clearly mentally ill, it seems the same goes for those hoping to ignite an argument against Muslim Extremism. To use these events as a means to lump an entire region together seems not just wrong, but a double standard to the success of western capitalism and its own history of religious extremism.

To defend free speech is one thing, but to use it as a means to generalize a world full of people who practice a peaceful religion is a dangerous path to take, and it seems like that is the one so many people are leaning towards. The work of Charlie Hebdo reflects trends of a worldwide view already established. Their deaths will only fuel a movement to discredit peaceful muslims all over the world that is already gaining momentum. Attacks against Islam are not just racist, islamophobic, or xenophobic, but show our willingness to be ignorant of what we don’t fully understand. To say Charlie Hebdo stood for free speech and call them heroes without giving a critique of how their drawings were not just offensive, but mocked the legacy of real heroes of free speech is lazy. It will only fuel more persecution of the peaceful, law-abiding muslims around the world.

Muslim extremism must be criticized and ridiculed.  I’m a strong believer in religion–all religions–and holding those religious adherents to the standard of the words they preach, but we can’t claim that interpretations are the origins of a religion. If that were the case, we should be passing the same criticism towards Christianity and the inequality it not just perpetuated, but created. It was in the name of Jesus Christ that Europeans justified colonizing Africa. It was Christianity that helped so many white Americans justify the enslavement of Africans, and the manifest destiny behind exterminating millions of Native Americans and the western colonialism of Central and South America. It was the Christian cross that burned–with the intent to instill fear in African Americans–for much of the 20th century. Yes, Christians don’t do that today, many will argue that point, but the damage has been done and  western privilege established.

So many of us in the West today  use our global privilege to ignore the history we are products of, and only examine events that seem like we took no part in. What the Muslim extremists are doing is no different from what the Church did in Europe for much of the last Millenium. We may not do so today, but we built a civilization on religious extremism, and when other regions of the world attempt do the same, we call them barbarians when all they are doing is taking note on what has been done so many times before. Muslim extremism does not exist in a vacuum. Those countries we look at with suspicion are the same countries with histories of being placed at war to the Christian extremism of the crusades. When Israel bombs Palestinian children, we never say Judaism is inherently flawed, so what makes Islam any different?

We are the proponents of free speech and democracy–this much is true–but we need to also understand that we hail from people who weren’t much different from these Muslim extremists. The history of western freedom was fueled by the economics of religious extremism. Missing from so many conversations and debates is an understanding of the commonality of those people the media perpetually casts as the other. It is either intentional, or by the blindness we’ve been conditioned to think with.

At its worst, Charlie Hebdo was simply racist, and the double standard of our history guarded this as free speech. When we don’t realize this, we fail ourselves.

Emma Watson, Feminism, and Spirituality

Emma WatsonEarlier this week, Emma Watson spoke as a Goodwill Ambassador at the UN for a new campaign, HeForShe, a righteous attempt to make gender equality a universal dialogue by bringing men into the discourse.

For many reasons, we could break down that speech for  the so many ways it was problematic. I don’t agree that Emma should have called out women for man-hating, and put the solution on women to be more open to men coming into the circle of feminist dialogue.

I also think for many of the reasons people praise it, we can also criticize it–like when she acknowledged her own privilege as being one of the few women in this world who can appreciate that level of economic, social, and professional success because of the resources she had readily available to her, claiming that the forces of sexism were never present in her life. And yes, we could make the case that that would have been an amazing moment to highlight all the women in the world who make far less than 78% of men, of women who have to rely on being sex workers to survive while privileged women criticize their choices, of a world of feminism that continually marginalize the experiences of black, brown, and poor voices.

All of these points can be debated to great lengths. But I also think that when you only focus on these points, you’re missing how beautiful the speech really is. It wasn’t until  the end of her speech that it really hit home with me:

“Men, I would like to give this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too….Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. When they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

Being a member of the Baha’i Faith, the concept of true Gender equality has never been a foreign topic, but rather one of the cores of my religious beliefs. There was a spiritual component that resonated with me when I heard this, and that is what made this so refreshing. As I was listening to her speak, I was reminded of the Baha’i Writings:

“ The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be.”

When we speak about eliminating patriarchy, we aren’t just talking about getting rid of prejudices, ending rape culture, or tearing down the walls of misogyny. we are talking about humanity’s–particularly men’s–spiritual salvation.

The older I get, and the more speeches like these I hear, the more I am becoming aware of the role that I have–as a man–in fostering the world that I want to live in, as well as a better understanding towards these Baha’i Principles I hold so close to me. It was men who made patriarchy what it is today, and so men play a crucial role in breaking down those barriers. Currently, the stakes are too high to do nothing and to sit idly.

When we allow ourselves to live in a world that lets patriarchy go unquestioned, we aren’t doing anyone any favors. We aren’t giving men the chance to be great, to raise them up as compassionate role models, to see women as equals, to go against the norms of what is or isn’t masculinity–of what makes a man a man. What we are doing is crippling their souls. Materially, patriarchy puts men ahead of women, but because of this, it puts us behind spiritually, and it makes us monsters because of it.

In an ideal world where women and men were equals, there are a lot things we wouldn’t see. We probably wouldn’t see Ray Rice dragging his fiance out of an elevator, or an institution like the NFL deem it a sufficient punishment to only suspend him for two games. We wouldn’t see men killing innocent people because they felt entitled to women’s bodies. We wouldn’t see a culture of rape dominate every sphere of our lives, and that sympathizes the perpetrators. Maybe Chris Brown would never have hit Rihanna . But even if he did, maybe we wouldn’t continue to support his music. We wouldn’t accept a government run almost entirely by men, and then allow them to dictate what women could, or could not, do to their bodies. In a world where women and men were equals, this post would be have been obsolete, because there would be no need.

Emma may not be the first to say what she is saying, but she is saying it. And for that, thank you.