Black Lives Matter: Going Beyond "Living in Each Other's Skins"

In light of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers, there’s a lot of talk about “living each other’s skin”. Thrown around in moments where our society witnesses another racially charged and historically embedded instance of police brutality, this kumbaya phrase bypasses true empathy. Meditating upon the feel good phrase for long enough, the mind inevitably reaches towards the literal interpretation. One might abandon the thought out of laughable implausibility, or for any number of reasons symptomatic of American ineptitude on the topic of race. It is a reminder that no curriculum, nor symbol, nor figure in America has developed a way of imagining the experience of others beyond our own skin color.

In a country living under the illusion of placid diversity, no praxis is offered to suggest meaningful coexistence. Instead, our culture lives in deafening silence, clinging to proverbs like the golden rule. Children are taught about empathy by tasking them to consider what it feels like to walk in a mile in each other’s shoes. No matter how hard we try to jam this point into our shared moral education, equal footing does not exist for the feet lacing up those shoes. Separated by more than the pigment of their skin, one group does not to have to physically wounded to experience violence. The daily violence of structural racism does not mirror the manicured lawns of Middle America. The same sense of entitlement to occupy space is not granted on a basis of colorblindness. With no way of imagining otherwise, those unaffected by invisible injunctions on the basis of their skin color hazard to passively accept the inequality that follows lines of race.

The existing political climate, one in which where Donald Trump decrees the construction of walls and racial profiling as righteous solutions to “Make America Great Again”, it is important to espouse the perspective of Americans subjugated to such blasphemy. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates brings meaning to the tired phrase, “living in each other’s skin”. Confronting the fault lines in his own identity with the acuity of threading a needle, Coates adds honesty and nuance to the imagining of his own individual experience as a black man. Coates accomplishes what so few endeavor to do by recognizing in his own narrative that we have a problem in this country with imagining life outside of our own color.

Tracing the allegiances that formed his paradigm during the course of his emerging adulthood, Coates highlights the works and ideas that allowed him to piece together his identity as a black youth. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and the lyricism of Ice Cube’s Death Certificate provided enough context to establish a sense of self in the confounding identity politics of the 1990s. America had successfully seized and adopted the cache of black coolness. Hip-hop, an acceptable form of blackness became pop culture fodder after emerging from humble beginnings in the party scene of 70s South Bronx. The music, the streetwear, the swagger was directly and indirectly usurped by the forces of Capitalism. “Keepin’ it real” was boxed and packaged in the form of a copy of 36 Chambers or a pair of Jordans. The greedy hands of corporate America glamorized the culture of black poverty, drugs, and violence they were complicit in perpetuating for profit. While Coates tried to understand his complicated emergence in a body without sanctity, restricted by the prejudices associated with blackness in the world around him, the form he was tasked to struggle to embody was being turned into a caricature of cool.  

Ta-Nehisi recalls the boyish reverence for the image and tenants of Malcolm X that stemmed from what he calls a “blossoming consciousness”. So much of Coates own childhood and adolescence was centered upon the impossibility of living his body without fear. He hoped to emulate the image and demeanor of Malcolm in his unapologetic ire, “controlled, intelligent, and beyond fear.” As a senior in high school, standing on the precipice of adulthood, Coates begins to seek answers to the confusion and frustration of black youth. The code of conduct instilled by his parents made to protect his body from the violence privy to all black youth could no longer appease his curiosity. In the resounding voices of Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement, solidarity and reason beyond suggestions of a set position in American society were imaginable. But beyond soothing his youthful appetite, Ta-Nehisi struggles with how to break away from the quid pro quo of revoking a central part of one’s identity to be alive and black. Be it for school or culture or for the right to just be alive, if we’d come so far, emerged out of the 1960s equal under the law, why was the experience of  black youth so irreconcilable?

Following the arch of his narrative, Coates both finds and undoes the youthful construction of his mind and body. Howard University offers a point of origin to piece together, unearth, and confront black thought and the kind of man, father, and citizen he hopes to be. In his formidable humility and insatiable intellectual curiosity, Coates finds the dulled black voices amplified in his very own Mecca. Professors and peers exemplify a whole spectrum of black experience. The central courtyard of Howard, The Yard, is a place flourishing with discourse and livelihood. The classroom and the quad became a microcosm where the imperative to check over his shoulder, to dilute his physical stature, the volume of his voice and ideas, was under no threat of violence besides the dismemberment of ideas. Coming to the end of his undergrad years, Coates begins to check his own grass is greener mentality about the sanctuary of his Mecca. His time at Howard had satiated a fundamental hunger, serving as an incubator for his own unique identity to be formed without the unspoken constraints placed upon Blackness in the world.

Coates captures watching his own experience in the world vicariously through raising his son. Painfully, the crushing reality of America is still one where race and the sanctity of black body is sublimated. His son’s body remains a fulcrum of exploitation. Emblematic of one big mass of black bodies in the eyes of a faceless tyrant. Bodies made the subject of police brutality, mass incarceration, and swelling gentrification.

Which brings us into the present. Leave the house and turn on the TV, you might be witnessing a coup or an act of terrorism, or the face of another victim of gun violence. American bigotry proliferates from the fringes in the form of a tweet or a clip on fox news, abhorrently trying to deny the reality that the black body is endangered in a way no white body is or has been in the history of this nation. America is supposed to be the exemplar of an equal opportunity place. Educate yourself enough, work honestly, work hard, and the rest will follow suit.  Not if you’re black or brown though? Not if you refuse to show deference to the intolerance of others?

 Despite well-intentioned support, whites cannot be blind to the way further insult is inflicted to the victims of racial inequality by commoditizing their suffering. Romanticizing the ongoing struggle for a racial equality in the United States from the vantage of privilege changes nothing. You can show genuine empathy, and a genuine desire to change the racial climate in this country, but you cannot speak for the experience of anybody else. For people who are not black, this is not the time to be the loudest voice in the room.  Silence is choosing to side with the oppressor, but so is comforting ourselves in a rhetoric of vacant righteousness.

People of color are not obliged to tell you how to be an ally.  Acknowledging your racial and/or socioeconomic status is not to foster an us versus them situation between groups. It is to recognize how in this country many of us live unencumbered by our race while others continue to be denied basic humanity. Offering authentic unity to the movement requires acknowledging racial privilege. Accept that the voice of your experience is weightless if you hope for an America where racial injustice is brought to an end. Not just for a day or a week, but until American society enacts meaningful measures to eradicate institutionalized racism and clampdown on racist attitudes.

Amongst repulsive deniers of racial profiling and brutalization, the words of BLM activist Jesse Williams must be repeated. In his stirring speech at this year’s BET awards, Williams addressed skeptics of black oppression arguing that criticism of the efforts to achieve equal rights for black people (and all people) is not the place for callous bystander. If you have no education or experience on the matter of black oppression, you also have no right to criticize those who do.

In my life, I have no comparable understanding of the black experience in this country. I am a direct beneficiary of the racial inequality in the United States, and my questions of existence in my born identity are arguably nominal to that of another person of my age and gender who happens to be a person of color. Those who live in threat to their lives, freedom, and liberty are at the helm in how they decide to demonstrate and voice their frustrations.

In solidarity with the sentiments of Jesse Williams and black leaders and activists, I beckon to the voices that refuse to acknowledge the truth of systematic racial oppression, to sit down. Sean Hannity, sit down.  Steve King, sit down. Tomi Lahren, sit the fuck down. To the sympathetic liberals out there, all of that collective brainpower could be put to use surmounting a better answer than just striving towards, “living in each other’s skins”. Atoning for the families and the victims of those brutalized or murdered is a non-partisan effort. We cannot encourage those who play into conditional prejudices; none of these victims were asking for it. All lives matter but it clear that black lives have been and continue to be subverted as second-rate.  

In a presidential election year, it is time use your voice or position to vote for candidates who will work proactively, through bureaucratic and policy-based channels to address the structures that propagate the cycle of violence. Stand by the cause during demonstrations and commit your time to listen to and join the movement in the streets.  Approach the issue from a pragmatic perspective to address systemic disparity and disenfranchisement.  More importantly, foster genuine concern for others not because it is the fashionable thing to do, but because it is a violent act to remain a bystander.