Back when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I remember picking up a women’s magazine and reading one of the token “substance stories”— about health care horror stories—included amongst the articles and ads about fashion and cosmetics. In one of the stories, a Black woman described an outrageous experience of going to the hospital with a serious medical problem, yet being left to wait, unexamined and untreated, for hours. Later, when asked to explain why that happened, a hospital employee involved in the receiving process said something along the lines of, “Well, I just assumed that she was some welfare person who didn’t have insurance,” and so he just left her.
By then, I had some understanding that things had historically been unfair to people who looked like me. But until that moment, I hadn’t really understood what my parents meant when they said that, even in the present day, the world was different for me because I was Black. Until then, it hadn’t fully occurred to me that other people’s snap judgments about me, based solely on my appearance, could literally have life or death consequences for me. Their perception of what kind of person I was, of whether they thought I looked “worthy” (as opposed to “some welfare person”…) could affect their decision to help me if I seriously needed it, like that woman did.
Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the moment, I remember learning a devastating lesson about what this country thinks “worthy” people look like—the White models in the articles and the ads in the rest of the magazine.
And I remember all of a sudden being far more concerned than I ever had been about what kind of message my looks sent to the world. Before I had any real sense of style, before I had any interest in dating, despite never caring where I fell in the school social hierarchy, I now had a very specific interest in how I looked, and it revolved around my own sense of safety. I wanted to make sure that strangers could understand as quickly as possible that, if something happened to me, I was a good kid—the sort of person who was worth caring about.
And I remember knowing that I couldn’t rely on my skin to send that message.
After that, it was hard not to notice how different shades of victims were treated and valued. I remember feeling uncomfortable every summer in particular, when I had more time to watch the news. There always seemed to be a young White female crime victim, and the whole media would be consumed with worry about her. The “news” networks, papers and magazines would transform into a kind of mass media AMBER Alert, as everyone waited with bated breath for her to be returned, or her body found, or her assailants brought to justice.
Yet I would hear about Black and Brown boys and girls being hurt and killed all the time, and aside from informal memorials within their communities—teddy bears and candles surrounding their photos at the crime scene, or the occasional mural—there was almost no public acknowledgment of those kids at all. Though I didn’t even know how to voice such fears out loud, I often wondered, “If something terrible happened to me, would anyone but my family care? Would anything be done about it?”
As someone who was raised right, I know that all people have value, regardless of any facet of their appearance or class status or anything else. And especially now, as a grown woman who understands and appreciates her own inherent value, I understand that I am worthy no matter what I look like, and that my looks are not responsible for other people’s behavior.
Yet it’s nevertheless a fact of my life that the way I look will have an impact on how I’m treated. I’ve seen the difference in how people address me based on the choices I make about my hair, or based on whether or not I’ve chosen to wear make up, or what I decide to wear—to say nothing about how I am perceived based solely on my skin tone itself, or how radically differently I would be perceived if I’d been born a Black boy instead of a Black girl. And unlike people who appear White, I know that if someone decides to treat me unfairly, even to the grave point of endangering or ending my life, they are far less likely to be held accountable for that. That’s a lesson our society teaches dark-skinned youth from a very early age.
Looking back, I realize that wasn’t just the way the media decided who qualified as a sympathetic victim versus who is considered expendable that sent a message about the color of human worth in our society. It was—and is—the differing expectation for what was supposed to happen next after the crime was committed. The vile rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka led to the passage of “Megan’s Laws” around the country, to help prevent such grisly crimes from happening again. When nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered, the subsequent outpouring of concern led to the creation of the AMBER Alert system that helps law enforcement track down kidnapped children.
By contrast, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, it took a major outcry just to get the Sanford Police Department to even examine why and how a kid who’s just walking home with candy and iced tea ends up dead. Never mind a new law to stop such situations from happening again—Trayvon’s family and the broader civil rights community had to wage a massive campaign just to activate the existing legal system on his behalf. And even then, the subsequent media coverage and criminal trial focused as much if not more attention on Trayvon’s perceived guilt, rather than on the well-established guilt of the man who unjustifiably stalked and then killed him.
I believe all people, especially children, deserve to live free of the kind of harassment and fear that turned what should have been an ordinary walk home into a fatal conflict. We should never accept it as normal or natural that some children should just have to live with a deflated sense of worth and a heightened sense of fear, just because of where or what color they were born.
So here’s a question: would our society ever seriously consider passing a Trayvon’s Law, that would clarify when deadly force is and isn’t justifiable as self-defense, and require all would-be licensed gun owners to take a course on how to recognize the difference between “standing your ground” and instigating a needlessly deadly conflict? How about a Hadiya’s Law, that would address how easily criminals can obtain guns, which they then use to terrorize urban communities? Or an Amadou’s Law, that would require law enforcement officials to learn about the inaccurate snap judgments that disproportionately lead to the shooting and killing unarmed men of color, and require them demonstrate their ability to quickly distinguish between a real versus an imaginary threat?
I hope someday to be proven wrong, but I’m not sure America would ever pass laws like these. And that, once again, sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t in our society.