Stephanie Mullings: Imagine

Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - 6:24pm

There is a scene in the biopic “Malcolm X” directed by Spike Lee that has always stuck with me in one of the most chilling and devastating ways possible. As Malcolm Little, soon to take the last name X, is beginning to adopt the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, he is prompted by one of his mentors to define the words “white” and “black” using Webster’s dictionary. He reads aloud that white is defined as, “the color of new snow; the opposite of black; free from spot or blemish such as moral impurity; innocent, without evil intent; and harmless.” 

Like Malcolm X, portrayed by Denzel Washington, I was shaken and disturbed by this discovery. Does that inadvertently imply that those who are white, technically … by definition, are pure, innocent and honest? While those who are Black are hostile and wicked? The scene I described previously in the “Malcolm X” movie ends with his realization about the dictionary, as he asks his mentor, “this is written by white folks, right?”

There is another definition I would like to share, it is for the word “numb.” It is defined as, “unable to think, feel, or react normally because of something that shocks or upsets you.” I am stating this definition because I want there to be absolutely no mistaking the way I felt after learning that the police officer who murdered Philando Castile was found not guilty of manslaughter charges. I am numb to the fact that an innocent man was mercilessly killed in front of his girlfriend and child for reaching into his pocket. Additionally, I am truly disheartened because of the fact that I expected this. I expected his murderer to walk free. I expected the Castile family to unsuccessfully seek justice and find peace. I expected a group of our peers, fellow American citizens, who served as jurors to justify an innocent Black man being slain at the hands of the police — those meant to protect and serve. Can you imagine that? Being so accustomed to disadvantage that you can no longer picture a life without it? Knowing that injustice, discrimination and violence against the community in which you belong is so frequent that you can only be left with the assumption that it should happen? Can you imagine knowing that essentially you can be killed because of a definition? Because let’s face the facts, the police officer who murdered Philando Castile assessed his response to what he considered a dangerous situation based on the realization that Castile was Black. And that must have meant he was foul and hostile, right? Can you imagine knowing deep in your heart that this is bound to happen again?

I must confess it has been a struggle to write this piece. At first I was scared that it would be disregarded as yet another reaction. Or that I would present myself as yet another disgruntled Black person. I feared that my words would be drowned out by activists that roar cries of justice and change or maybe by those who view this ruling as the correct decision. I thought, who am I to speak about this? What difference do my words make in the grand scheme of things? I succumbed to the intense pressure of attempting to differentiate myself from the rest. How could I make this honest, raw and genuine? How could I make it something that would stick with readers? Intimidated by all of these questions and my own fear, I figured — I’ll just leave it alone, I will think of another topic to write about.

But then I thought, was Bill Maher scared when on national television he used the n-word in a tasteless joke? Was the assailant who vandalized LeBron James’s home by spray painting the n-word on his front gate scared? Is our own president scared anytime he tweets something rude, inflammatory or outlandish? The answer is no. Each of these individuals have said what they want and more importantly what they mean. None of them were scared, because they are under the impression that their words matter. That they can, and should, speak openly and freely. An impression which I too should have. So here is what I have to say…

Philando Castile was a father, son and friend. He was murdered for being Black. Our justice system has validated that this is not wrong, just as they have before in the past. The worst part about it is, these sorts of tragedies more than likely will continue in the future until systemic oppression is eliminated and lasting change will occur.

Until then, can you imagine having to wait for such drastic transformation, including not only redesigning the infrastructure of the branches of our government, but additionally eradicating bias, prejudice, oppressive behavior and racist ideals from generations of people? You are left to live with a target on your back because of the color of your skin. You must instill the notion within your children that because of who they are, they must always have an acute awareness of themselves to their surroundings … That they must recognize their difference and the subsequent notions it causes regarding their “place” in society. Can you imagine that? Or knowing that you are Black and can be killed for the mere perceptions that many hold which label you as dangerous? Aggressive? Foul and hostile? Can you imagine another mother losing her son to bullets from a gun meant to defend us? Can you imagine another daughter witnessing their father die in front of their very eyes?

Can you imagine?

I can.

Stephanie Mullings can be reached at srmulli@umich.edu