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Black Survival Depended and Depends on White Comfort

By King Salim Khalfani

While reading a commentary by Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, an artist, activist and scholarly Assistant Professor, I thought I would pick out the greatest hits rather than email the entire piece. It was pretty voluminous.

As I speak of in my training sessions, “How to Survive Your Encounter With Law Enforcement,” the author describes an incident when a white police officer engaged a group of African males in Charleston, South Carolina about possible criminal activity and he had to “fight down the urge to appease this white officer. To put him at ease, to make sure he felt validated, in charge and above all comfortable.” This is of paramount importance to surviving the encounter.

o The author’s mother and father taught him to: Shrink down into yourself around white people in command, make yourself small and quiet and do whatever it takes to keep them comfortable.

o Survival for Black folk during slavery, Jim Crow and well beyond necessitated thousands of small demonstrations of pleasant compliance toward white people.

o This didn’t just mean crossing the street when a white person approached; it meant keeping your eyes down while you did it. It didn’t just mean stepping off the curb for a white person; it meant smiling while you did it.

o It means not just acquiescing to unwarranted police interrogation and arrest; it means being friendly, even gracious throughout the ordeal. Black survival has so often depended on white comfort.

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African males and females spend a great amount of time and energy ensuring white comfort whether on the job, in school, at events and especially during encounters with law enforcement. It is unspoken but general knowledge that without white comfort about your presence, it will be hard for us to navigate our way through this society. A teenaged, high school junior (female) asked me recently, “Why do I have to change who I am, how I speak and what I say to make my white teachers and classmates comfortable?” Even as children we learn these mores that must be adhered too.

We sometimes laugh at something a white co-worker says at work, even if it is not funny, just to make whites comfortable. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a work called, “We Wear the Mask that Grins & Lies”. Africans feel compelled to grin and lie all the time. We try are our hardest to accommodate, assimilate and ingratiate ourselves to whites in order to blur our physical and cultural differences.

Every day of our lives in cities like North Charleston, Charleston, Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Richmond, African people walk circumspectly in the face of conflict and violence that could lead to our imprisonment or end our lives. In the twinkling of an eye, we cry, comply, yet we continue to die. In 2015, my very survival still largely depends on white comfort.

(Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika holds an Assistant Professorship at Clemson University’s Department of Communication Studies. His article appeared in Code Switch on June 24, 2015.)

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