Black lives do matter

August 1, 2020 -- Living City

Black lives do matter
An interracial couple shares their experiences of racism and reflects on what it will mean for their future children

By Gesuina and Scott Lafayette IV

Racism is expressed with and without words. Regardless, it is damaging on many levels, particularly when experienced constantly. Having close Black friends and being married to a Black man have helped me begin to understand this and the systemic racism in the U.S.

During a nonprofit fundraising gala one evening, my husband and I met up with representatives of an organization I work with. After the proper introductions, we asked for a group picture with the head of this organization.

Days later, I asked for a copy of the picture. I received the photo attached to an email that surprisingly contained an apology, stating she didn’t know how “this” could have happened. Pictured were the members and their husbands (Asian and white couples), the organization’s president (white woman), and me (Filipino). From the way the shot was framed, it was evident my husband Scott was deliberately excluded, though he was standing close to me. I remembered who took the photo: an older white man. Stunned, offended and mad, I deleted it.

When I told my husband about it, he just shrugged. See, this incident is just one of many incidents of racism that he’s personally experienced throughout his life. This highlights what people often fail to understand about recent protests: while “all lives matter,” the daily lived experiences of Black people don’t manifest that truth.

On the contrary, over and over again, subtly or overtly, Black lives are constantly questioned, threatened, disadvantaged and killed. This has been happening since the foundation of this country. Saying “Black lives matter” powerfully calls for it actually to be held true, especially when prior silent demonstrations have gone unheeded.

My husband, his family and our friends have countless experiences of unjust treatment, including a few with police officers, because of their skin color.

Scott’s close call

“About 10 years ago, I was in Georgetown, Virginia, with my girlfriend at that time and her friend. It was a chilly and sunny November, and streets were packed with Christmas shoppers. We were walking down the main drag, enjoying the shops, decorations and each other’s company.

“Suddenly, two men jumped out of a brown sedan, as one yelled at me, ‘Hold it!’ I quickly deduced these guys were police officers. They briskly walked over to me, like they were sure I’d run, and positioned themselves on either side of me. My earlier deduction was confirmed when three or four Georgetown Police cars pulled up in a hurry to join them. Every single one of them was white.

“‘What’s your name? Where are you coming from?’ the officer questioned. As soon as I could get a word in, I asked him why I was being detained. He replied there had been a robbery last month and I fit the suspect’s description.

“I think I laughed — it’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I asked what that description was. As the officer looked me up and down, he said, ‘Black male, 5’11, wearing boots, a peacoat and a knit cap.’ I looked around at the people on the streets and everyone was wearing boots, wool coats and knit caps. It was November in Virginia! However, I didn’t see one other Black man on that street.

“That exchange had me start to worry. I got the feeling that this cop had made up his mind that I was going to jail. I managed to have the wherewithal to tell my girlfriend and her friend to go into a shop. I also told my girlfriend no matter what happened to me, she must make our flight back home in the morning. I knew I might need her to tell my family and friends I had been arrested and needed bail.

“By this time, several officers were around me, some in the street with guns and a couple on the sidewalk. There was a crowd too. Everyone was looking at me. I could feel their judgements because the cops were treating me like I had done something wrong; in their eyes, I had. This made me more nervous; I was out there by myself.

“I could hear a couple of the officers convincing themselves I was their man, saying, ‘That’s him, I’m sure that’s him’ and ‘The description fits.’

“But somewhere behind one of the police car doors, I heard an officer say, ‘I’m not sure, I’m calling Jackson (name changed).’

“I don’t remember how long we stood on the sidewalk waiting on Jackson — whoever he was. I remember being cold and irritated. I wasn’t angry or embarrassed, though I could have had a righteous claim to both. I was irritated, because again I wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt. I was on display; some people stared, and others slowed down to see. None of them knew me or the circumstances, but my skin had made me a likely criminal again.

“After what seemed a very long time, an unmarked police car showed up. The tires screeched as it stopped in the street already filled with police cars. Out jumped a Black officer. Even before he could get within 30 feet of me, he said, ‘That’s not him!’

“Oh, the relief! As he continued to walk towards me, he repeated, ‘That’s not him.’ One of the white officers questioned, ‘are you sure it isn’t him?’

“The Black officer responded sharply, ‘I played football with the suspect all through high school; I know what he looks like. It isn’t him!’

“To their palpable disappointment, the other cops stood down and started returning to their cars. No apology.

“It turns out this Black officer was Detective Jackson. He apologized to me for what happened. He pulled out a card, wrote something on the back, handed it to me, and told me to make sure I carried it while I was in town. It was his business card; he’d written something affirming that it had been proven I was not the robbery suspect. It was literally my ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. I had my picture taken with him and the card for insurance.”

A life trajectory of injustice

What if that officer didn’t call Detective Jackson, or Detective Jackson didn’t know the suspect? What if one officer instantly used force? Scott could have died then, or his life could have had a different trajectory, with him entering the cycle of disadvantages that shapes the lives of Black men who enter the multimillion-dollar profit prison system.

I see the reverberating impacts of such instances shape our life together. Just last year, our friend — a seasoned, skilled, professional woman with two master’s degrees — was denied a vice president position at work because the Korean executives “didn’t want the face of a Black woman being the face of the global organization.”

We’ve cried in court with a friend whose Black son was convicted to prison over a bar fight, while others involved (non-Black) weren’t even charged. The anguish is immense, rooted in understanding the lifetime impact of this single conviction on her son’s life. Racism’s deep roots truly permeate our current systems — just peel back the curtains.

Through our conversations, I realized other people of color, including Filipinos, also experience racism; however, as a Filipino immigrant woman, I am more privileged than my husband who was born and raised here. While other people of color have benefitted from the fight for civil rights, Black people continue to experience what their parents or grandparents fought hard to change.

I can go to a store carrying a backpack without a second thought; Scott would never do it because he knows others might perceive him suspiciously. I’ve since become mindful of what I carry with me as well.

Having worked in local government, where I interacted closely and developed friendships with local police officers, I’ve always felt safe on our streets; Scott feels unease in light of the potential misperceptions that could have grave consequences. Now, I always try to be aware of police presence while we travel, and we avoid areas where they may be present.

In my mind, police interactions have never been accompanied by fear for my life. Black people and parents of Black children don’t have that privilege. This hit home when our friend had to explain to her teenage sons why she can’t buy them a hooded sweatshirt — “because I’m trying to keep you alive.” This was after Trayvon Martin’s death, and the shooter was acquitted.

Scott and I have been looking forward to having children, fully aware of our shared values, differences and potential challenges. Recently, as we watched everything unfold, listening to hate-filled rhetoric or callous responses, we somberly asked each other again, “Do you really want kids?” This time, we both paused before answering.

“Sometimes I wonder because I don’t want them gunned down,” was Scott’s response, with a sense of helplessness; I said, “With a lot of prayers, yes.”

I will always remember this moment, because it finally sunk in that to be parents of Black and Filipino children comes with this deep-seated fear and a lifetime struggle — not just to keep them safe, which presumes their right to exist — but first to preserve their very existence, when their lives may matter very little or not at all to others because of their skin color, which they cannot shed. Their lives can end in an instant, perhaps by officers operating within a system of “us vs. them” mentality that has been ingrained in them. This is what we’ll have to face and endure.

Now, our desire for children comes with a lot of prayers and hope for a better world for them.

Equally important is a constant effort to answer the question: How do we effect change and make it better? We focus on our own mindset, constantly examining the ingrained narratives about our own culture and that of others, engaging in conversation to help others do the same in order to educate ourselves and others.

We strive to take action from a place of love, and remember our brains are meaning-producing machines.

Racism is not inherent; it’s taught and learned. Hopefully with education, intentionality, humility and love for others, it can be unlearned.

After all, as a pastor said during a protest: we are all created in God’s image and likeness, so how can we treat Black lives as if they don’t matter when Jesus found them important enough to die for on the cross?

If you are interested to read more articles like this: