Opinion | I keep a family photo at my front door. It’ll stay there until toxic attitudes toward Black lives go away.

Cristopher Centers

That paragraph you just read is a litmus test. Some of you will read these words and wonder, “Why would she ever do that?” But some of you will read this and nod your head in recognition. Or perhaps conclude, “Maybe I should do that, too.” Those of us in […]

That paragraph you just read is a litmus test. Some of you will read these words and wonder, “Why would she ever do that?”

But some of you will read this and nod your head in recognition. Or perhaps conclude, “Maybe I should do that, too.”

Those of us in that second category are not worried about police entering our home because we’re engaged in criminal behavior. We worry — actually, we know, that we could be seen as criminals or intruders in our own homes even if we consistently and even obsessively live by the rules. A steady stream of raids-gone-wrong buttresses those fears and yet it goes far beyond all that.

Everyone has heard about “The Talk” — advice on how loved ones should comport themselves when dealing with anyone who might see them as threatening.

Stay calm. No sudden moves. Hands out of pockets. Cooperate even if it feels unfair, even if you know you did nothing wrong. No hint of anger. Just make it home.

Please God . . . just make it home.

But being home only provides so much protection. My social media feeds are full of stories of Black and brown people who’ve had police called on them by neighbors or passersby because they allegedly look “suspicious” — a way of saying they don’t look like someone who belongs in the home where they pay a mortgage and mow the lawn . . . the place where they learned to ride a bike in the driveway . . . the apartment where they just hung drapes.

Stay calm. . . . Cooperate even if it feels unfair.

My family thought it was a bit strange when I decided to start keeping the picture by the door in case a neighbor thought one of us looked suspicious. The kids rolled their eyes. My husband said, “Your call.” (Always a good answer.)

The picture at my door is a kind of insurance and, like most safeguards, you hope you never need it. But if you do, boy, are you glad it’s there.

That happened last month. My 20-year-old son is a college student who keeps night-owl hours, a tennis fanatic who watches matches overseas in real time. And like most young men, he loves a late-night kitchen raid. All of that was in play when our son, who would normally be off to college in California, was “attending” online classes from home because of the covid-19 schedule. My husband and I were out of town. He had the house to himself, and during a wee-hours fridge blitz, he accidentally triggered the security alarm.

He was clearing dishes when he spotted police at the backdoor window. They gestured for him to head toward the front. He unlocked the main entrance, and the questions began. Do you live here? Yes. Where are your parents? Out of town. How long have you lived here? Are you a resident or just a visitor?

I’ve long fretted about a moment like this. If police were ever summoned to our home based on suspicion, would they look at my husband or my kids and calculate what I see? What I know to be true? Hard workers. Good students. Kind hearts.

I’d like to believe most officers and most people would see that. But I know that Black skin is too often viewed as an immediate threat. Studies show Black men are seen as larger, stronger, more muscular and more threatening when compared to White men of exactly the same size.

My son has seen a steady stream of police encounters that end in Black death. He’s standing in his foyer, wearing Ravens slippers and his collegiate T-shirt with names dancing through his head. Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Elijah McClain. He’s looking at police officers and wanting to believe the protect-and-serve promise, but knowing they’re responding to a 4:30 a.m. alarm, encountering a young Black man alone in a big house who claims he lives inside.

My heart breaks when my son relays this baptism into double consciousness. A bracing manifestation of that James Baldwin quote: “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

He remembered the picture. He pointed gently toward the hall table. That’s me, he explains to the police. That’s us. This is ours.

The officers left soon after. They said be careful and asked if he was sure he was okay.

Thankfully he is, but what’s not okay is the underlying thread in American life that automatically links dark skin with dark intention. What is not okay is pretending that doesn’t exist. What is not okay is exploiting those fears for political gain. What is not okay is trying to erase or expunge the dark history in America — slavery, subjugation, segregation — that’s the foundation for poisonous assumptions.

Our country will never be okay until we deal with all of this.

I’ll keep that picture at my front door. It will change over time to accurately reflect the broadening of my son’s chest. The squaring of his jaw. The thickening facial hair.

Until toxic attitudes toward Black lives and the constant perception of Black threat go away — that picture stays.

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