Guilty of Being Black

My friend and noted author Okey Ndibe from Nigeria, told the story of being picked up by police in a small New England town after 13 days in the United States.  The officer said that he “fit the description”.  Ndibe knew that he was guilty as soon as he looked the police officer in the eye.

Police officers are trained to spot guilt, immediately.  Like dogs that chase the ones who are afraid (they say that dogs can smell fear), police are trained to spot behaviors that indicate guilt.  They are duty bound to follow up on those behavioral indicators.  Take running for instance.  When police arrive on the scene, the person who runs is assumed to be the guilty one.

With this in mind, I have led workshops to help Black people learn to stop looking guilty.  I want them to act with confidence and empowerment.  I want Black people to step outside the victim perspective, give up feeling guilty, and act like they belong and are entitled. This, I thought, was one road to success.

I was working once, with two Black male colleagues to arrange a room at a university where we were holding our annual conference.  An adjacent room held additional chairs we needed for our seminar room.  Soon after we opened the door to move the chairs, a police officer arrived.  I greeted the officer warmly, said how happy we were to see him, and thanked him for coming.  We need the other door opened so that we can complete our room set-up, I explained.  The officer responded that he came because when we opened the door to that room, a signal was sent to the police. He had come to investigate a potential robbery.  I asked him to help us move the chairs while we talked.  We had a limited amount of time to prepare before our group arrived. The officer explained that if we needed more chairs from that room, we needed to call the police to come and open the door rather than opening it on our own.  We agreed that we would be mindful of that in the future.  In the meantime, thanks so much for coming to our aid.

When my team and I debriefed that event later in the evening, my two Black male colleagues described the terror, panic, and sense of dread they felt when they saw the police officer approach.  They were flabbergasted when I greeted the officer so warmly, indicating that if they had been the one to respond, the outcome might have been very different.

This event helped frame my (mistaken) conclusion that if Black people appeared more confident, approached situations and people (white) with greater ease, and rid themselves of that “guilty response”, they would have greater success and fewer difficulties with white people, especially with the police.

As I listened to Ndibe tell the story of his encounter with the police, I thought about my efforts to help Black people look less guilty.  Ndibe knew that he was guilty.  When his gaze landed solidly in the eye of that police officer, he was overcome with guilt.  The look on his face betrayed that guilt. That police officer, trained and quick to spot signs of guilt, recognized the guilty look.  He was duty bound to call Ndibe out from among the crowd of people standing at the bus stop and interrogate him. There was no way for Ndibe to “not” look guilty.  His instructions prior to departure from Nigeria to come to the US had been thorough and emphatic:  “Never Look An American In The Eye” (title of his latest book).

I thought about my efforts to help Black people learn the behaviors that would lessen the look of guilt.  Listening to Ndibe, I realized that it is impossible for Black people in the US to not look guilty. In the US, to be Black is to be guilty.  That is written into the history of this country. It is inscribed in our present situation.  Training Black people to not look guilty is to train them to not look Black.  As the courtroom judge told my cousin who was picked up by police because he “fit the description”,  “they have proven that you are not the person in this photo taken at the scene of the crime, and they have proven that you were somewhere else when this crime occurred, but I know that you are guilty of something, so you are going to do some time”.

Perhaps the lesson is one that Black Lives Matter and the Movement For Black Lives has sought to teach:  Black people get to be proudly, unapologetically Black.  At the same time, we get to work with each other and with our allies (in the media, classrooms, courtrooms and elsewhere) to create a society where being Black is no longer seen as a symbol of guilt.





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