There has been an odd sequel following comedian Chris Rock’s statement that he gets pulled over by the police all the time. Each time that happens, while stopped and waiting for the police to come up to him, he takes a photo and posts it on Instagram with a comment that ends with the sign-off “Wish me luck”.
Actor Isaiah Washington created a minor media kerfuffle by responding that he had reduced the chances of being stopped for ‘driving while black’ by selling his $90,000 Mercedes and buying three Priuses and suggesting that Rock similarly ‘adapt’ and reduce his chances of being targeted by police by driving a more nondescript car. (As a digression, I was wondering why Washington felt that he had to replace one expensive car with three cheaper ones since you can only drive one car at a time, whatever its price. Does he have some fixed allowance that he must spend only on cars?)
Washington got a lot of heat for suggesting that Rock be like him and adapt to the police’s profiling practices instead of standing up for the right to drive whatever car he wants and have the police adapt to that fact.
This is one of those situations where there is no clear right answer as to what to do. I think it is easy to forget that being a black person in a white-dominated America that harbors all manner of unease about racial issues means living a very complicated life and having to consciously think about decisions in everyday life that everyone one else does not give a moment’s thought to. There is a wealth of literature about how black people, especially those in the middle and upper classes who work, live, and play in environments where they are in a minority, have to be consciously aware all the time of how they are perceived by others and make deliberate choices about what they wear, how they do their hair, how they talk, what they talk about, who they associate with, all in order to be accepted or non-threatening. They are all, in Washington’s term, adapting.
This can be not only exhausting but also create an internal tension because there is a natural resentment in having to conform to the expectations of others in so many ways, many of them quite trivial, rather than being who you are and doing what you want to do. You can hardly blame each person for deciding that they cannot stand up for their principles in every aspect of their lives but instead picking and choosing which battles to fight. Some will choose to battle police profiling while others might choose to fight workplace discrimination while others will pick other issues to combat. We all have just so much will and energy and have to choose where to expend them.
I think that the rest of us who are not in that situation should cut the people facing these situations some slack by recognizing that not everyone can be a standard bearer for everything. This is best done by supporting those who decide to fight against this or that unfair set of expectations while not judging harshly those who decide that certain fights are not for them personally and have to be left for others.