• Dami Afam Ade-Odiachi

Be Careful - Being black can be fatal.

Blue’s Kitchen, London, January 2016. Hypersensitive about being black in a rather white setting

As I watched the video (which I can no longer find) of that police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 3 minutes, 5 minutes, as many as 8 minutes, I wondered how a man could find it in himself to do that to another man. When death comes quickly, via gunshot, stabbing, poison, violent push off the 19th floor of an apartment building, I tend to think, “How unfortunate.” Human life is fragile. It is very easy to kill someone. But what do you call it when someone devotes at least 5 minutes to the killing of a man? What do you say when the man that’s being killed is screaming, “Don’t kill me. I can’t breathe.” What do you say when the 3 other police officers around the man doing the kneeling, the killing, heard George crying, “Don’t kill me. I can’t breathe.” And did nothing - said nothing. What do you say when the man doing the kneeling, doing the killing, and the men doing the standing, the policing, knew that they were being filmed and heard the protests of passers by, but persisted in their actions until the man was dead. Did they not feel shame? Did they not feel remorse? Did they feel anything at all? If the videos are to be believed then no. They felt nothing at all. I wonder what they thought they were doing, or what they thought the outcome would be. Not even animals, chickens, cows, goats, snakes, are killed so cruelly, so unusually, with such impunity. I don’t even have the luxury of saying, “he died like a dog.” Because he didn’t die like a dog. He died worse than a dog.

I suppose the matter is particularly confusing to me because I’m black too. That means that if for some reason, I had cause to be in Minneapolis, I too could be suffocated to death by knee on neck in broad daylight, in full view of the public, on film. I’m sure I wouldn’t last 3, 5, 8 minutes. I’m 5 ft 7. I weigh 65 kilograms. I’ll skip the putting up a fight part and go straight to the dying part. That’s what it means to be black: liable to die for any reason at all, criminal or not, without any expectation of justice. Justice is for human beings, sometimes it’s also for animals, but it’s never really for black people. Through the documented violence black people are exposed to, and my unlimited desire for safety and comfort, I shall never aspire to be black there. It won’t serve me. So I’ll be other things. I’ll be Nigerian, I’ll feign the affectations of an English nobleman, I’ll present myself like a man of wealth, all in the hope that I’ll approach something vaguely resembling humanity, with rights and freedoms that I can’t properly imagine. When I was born, I thought I was human. But life has taught me that I’m not quite that anywhere but in parts of Africa below the Sahara desert and above South Africa.

When you’re black and abroad, outside the stretch of land beyond the Sahara and maybe in South Africa, you’re never quite relaxed enough to forget about the colour of your skin. It’s a chain around your neck that constricts when you raise your voice, or walk in a group of similarly afflicted people, or speak. There’s this endless drone in your head to be careful. My mother gave me a stern warning before I went abroad for school. “Be careful.” She didn’t say what I needed to be careful of. Was it white women named Karen? Was it of being a criminal? Was it of becoming a thug? I don’t know. Maybe it was the combination of all of them. Maybe it was her way of saying when you’re black your humanity isn’t something you’re born with, it’s the summation of all the virtues you accrue on your journey.

When I left Nigeria, I became aware that I was hyper visible in a way I could not have expected. The security guards tailing you in stores, the way a low grade store clerk would check that your £50 notes were real with uncontainable glee. They were itching, begging, to be right. I was itching, begging, to be beyond reproach. I wanted to be invisible, because being seen meant that you were attracting attention, and the attention of men there is a wicked thing. I remember one time in a Manchester Club, a night when my friends, white (mostly white), thought it’d be a brilliant thing to get in a fight. I vanished because I knew it would be my fault somehow and that I would be jailed, and then deported. Don’t forget that I’m Nigerian. We don’t suffer victims lightly. The victim is always to blame. So even now that I mourn this Mr Floyd that died so terribly, the Nigerian in me says, “why did he need to be dragged out of his car?” “Why didn’t he fly out of the car and fall on the ground with his hands already behind his back?” “Why did he pay with a 20 dollar bill?” “Didn’t he know to smile at the clerk very well? Maybe flirt a bit?” It’s stupid, I know. But here we are. A man is dead, and I’m thousands of miles away processing it because theoretically, hypothetically, it could have been me.

If you put water in a broken cup, the cup will leak. If the cracks are invisible then it is natural that we express surprise when we discover that the cup is leaky. However, when the cracks are as visible as day from night, any shock that a cup full of holes is leaking is a sign of madness. A corrupt government cannot help but be corrupt. A racist world cannot help but be racist. Dysfunction will never translate to order. Chaos will always produce chaos. It cannot be expected to do anything different.

Sometimes, we say the problem is a white one, but I don’t know that it’s true. It’s an Asian problem, an Indian problem, an Arab problem. It’s a global problem. Black bodies count for nothing. When Aisha Falode’s son was murdered in Dubai, there was no justice. Why? When Nigerian’s were kicked out of their homes in China, there was no justice. Why? Is it that justice is a difficult thing to come by? Is it that the tools to investigate and resolve the issues were absent? When the case against George Floyd is brought before a judge and his killer and accomplices get away with a tap on the wrist, I will not be surprised. It’s the reality I’m accustomed to. When the systems of protection do not protect you, you can only police yourself. So when your mother, your father, says, “be careful” listen. They know of what they speak. All of your ancestors, without exception, were enslaved or colonized. Be careful. The systems that allowed for this to happen, the subjugation of an entire race by every other race still exist. Be careful.

The worst thing about this is I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to fix the world and everyone in it. All I know is that I suffer, we suffer, and everyone is complicit in my suffering. From the people that expect me to be clean shaven knowing that being black puts me at risk of having ingrown hairs to the people that expect me to shower twice a day to fulfill some mandate of cleanliness which doesn’t seem to apply to anyone that isn’t black. I don’t know that you should riot, or loot, or protest but I can’t tell you to stop. If you’re benefiting from tokenism in some way and feel that you’ll be jeopardizing your present reality by saying something, then I can’t tell you to speak. So until the world won’t kill you for getting skittles, or going for a run, or playing with a toy gun in a department store, all I can say is Be Careful, knowing full well that it’s a useless endeavor.

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