Why I Wore Black

andreellis

Andre Ellis WG’18

I, like the majority of the black men in this country, believe that Terrence Crutcher or Keith Scott, could have easily been me or someone close to me.  Black people in this country are viewed differently and problematically and I operate with the understanding that my education, my job history and my diverse group of friends do not protect me from that.

Early this year, I was stopped by the police while I was with my younger brother. It was late on a Saturday night, we were on back roads with barely any other cars in sight and I was driving within the speed limit. The minute I was pulled over I was overcome with anxiety. As the officers approached my car my palms started to sweat as I went out of my way to keep them visible on the steering wheel.

Its easy to read that and think “What’s the big deal about being pulled over?”  The thing is, if you ask the average black person they can tell you about dozens of such incidents they have experienced as they have slowly become conditioned to have their palms start sweating with anxiety when they saw lights in their rearview mirror.  This is a small example of the daily pressures black people face in a country that still has intense racial issues.  

I wore black last week because I wanted to ask for my peers to be present and aware of issues around injustices and racial profiling toward African-Americans. For my peers to stand with me and use their voices to make my experiences a bit more equal.


brandonjones

Brandon Jones WG’17

One night in undergrad, my roommate and I were driving home from the gym. After stopping at a red light, my friend drove off as usual when, within five seconds, we saw police lights flash behind us. When we pulled over to the side, neither of us knew why we were being stopped. Two officers came from the police car, one coming to each of our windows. Since I wasn’t the driver, I was confused when my window was tapped on and I was told to roll it down. The other officer went to my friend’s window and started questioning him, asking where we were coming from and where we were going. After explaining that we were coming from the gym and were just going back to our dorm (which was a block away from us at this point), the officer took my friend’s license and registration and they both went back to their car. When he came back, he asked my friend if he knew why he was pulled over. My friend replied that he had “no idea why”, and the officer told him it was because he was going 15mph over the speed limit. He let us go with a warning and then we continued home.

My roommate and I were frustrated by what happened. If it was a routine traffic stop, then why did two officers have to come to the car? Why did each of them have to have an external bulletproof vest on? And why did I, the passenger, have to be involved in the situation? And how could a 1996 Volvo go 15mph over a 45mph speed limit in a mere 5 seconds?

I think one of the things that helped mitigate the situation, and perhaps save us more undue trouble, was the fact that my roommate so happened to be wearing a Duke t-shirt when we got pulled over. Although unintentional, it was a symbol to the cop that we were “safe” black men. A context that indicated maybe we weren’t “dangerous” as black men are typically pre-judged to be. A pre-judgment I feel on the regular when I see something as subtle as someone crossing the street at night when they see me about to cross paths with them—especially if I don’t have the name of my institution imprinted on my clothing.

I wore black because I hope that one day this false image of what a black man is will be thrown away. It’s an image that can have deadly consequences as has been seen captured in the media more and more in the past few years. I hope that this perception created through the history of this country will someday be revealed for what it is: A lie.


charitywollensack

Charity Wollensack WG’17

“What are you guys up to? Where are you from? What are you doing around here? Where did you get that bike?” As a pre-teen those were the questions my brother and his black friends were consistently asked by the local police in our predominantly white neighborhood. While those questions may seem innocent enough, before long my brother noticed those questions were only asked when he was around a group of black friends and never when he was with a group of friends that was majority white.

At this young age he became aware that his blackness created different, unfavorable treatment from local law enforcement. Unfortunately, while this was the first time he felt that way it certainly was not the last. As he got older, it became routine to be randomly asked for his ID while walking in front of his own house or being randomly searched because he “fit the description” of someone who committed a crime. Experiencing this frequent unequal treatment from an early age created a general distrust and uneasiness towards the police – even when doing nothing wrong.

When I think about the latest occurrences of unarmed black men shot by the police, I think about my brother. I hope that one day that distrust for the police that is so embedded in him from an early age doesn’t cause him to make any slight movement or any “mistake” in his interactions, because as we have seen time and time again when you’re perceived as a threat for nothing more than your appearance, once “mistake“ can cost you your life.

I wore black because I want people to realize that the incidents that end up on the news are just the most tragic manifestations of a million tiny injustices that ensure that the way my brother is treated is different than the way yours is.


christinacelentano

Christina Celentano WG’17

It’s human to struggle to believe and understand the experiences you don’t live. I don’t think I began to fully believe or understand racism and the unique experiences of minorities in the U.S. until I experienced racism alongside my Puerto Rican boyfriend in college who had an accent as thick as his beard. From the homeless woman who called him a “spic” and told him to go back to where he came from to the 7 cop cars who were called to our university bar on the South Side of Chicago when he got too drunk to the police officer who told him to speak English (which he was, with an accent) and threatened to arrest him (not me) outside Lollapalooza when we were unknowingly trying to catch a cab on the wrong side of the street. I was next to him holding his hand in each instance. And I saw so clearly through his eyes that because of how he looks and sounds, he faces an entirely different reality every day than I do. This is my white privilege.

Words like “black lives matter” and “white privilege” are as loaded as they are true. I do understand the impulse to reject the label “privileged” – it can feel like it’s spitting on the tremendous sacrifices of my great grandparents who left Italy for America with nothing, the choice my grandparents had to make to not teach their children Italian to save them from the discrimination they faced for their foreignness, the hard work and courage of my mother who graduated from Wharton though her parents never finished elementary school, and my own personal struggle growing up with a loved one who suffers from severe mental illness. But “white privilege” does not equate to an easy life and “black lives matter” does not imply that all lives don’t matter.

I wore black because as complicated as those phrases are I think we have a responsibility to dissect and understand them. Because I wanted to challenge my peers to explore their privilege and ask themselves if we can in fact make sure that in the future we wont have to say “black lives matter” anymore because all lives really will matter.


emilybrenes

Emily Brenes WG’18

We live in a country that profited off the institutionalized oppression of generations of black people. As an American, I know this is profoundly difficult to stomach. But if you read this statement and you find yourself hesitating to accept it, you need to remind yourself of the facts.

My journey to allyship started with this painful and humbling admission. As shame washed over me, I knew I needed to educate myself about the long history of institutionalized oppression in this country. I was alarmed by what I learned. Today, oppression is reinforced by government policy, from criminal justice to voting laws.

But why, I asked myself, had I not seen this before?

The answer is privilege. As a white person, I benefit from unearned advantages everyday. I don’t think about my race because I do not have to. I have the privilege of being oblivious because I am very, very rarely confronted with negative implications of being white.

Allyship starts with acknowledging how little we know about the experiences of others while actively working to unlearn and re-evaluate what we perceive to be true. Because if you, like me, benefit from white privilege, you will not come to understand your privilege, your biases, or existing oppressive structures by accident. White privilege means white history and white literature are core curriculum while other narratives are relegated to electives.
I wore black because with whiteness comes power and with power comes responsibility. I feel a great responsibility to use my privilege to amplify the voices of those who feel marginalized, silenced, and ignored.


georgedutile

George Dutile WG’17

After ten combat deployments I removed myself from news, social media and politics and focused on my family and self.  I rationalized that I didn’t have to take a public stance or get involved in the issues around me because part of me felt that my contribution was my military service maintaining others’ freedom of speech to participate in these conversation.  My only role now was to raise two amazing tolerant and thoughtful children who valued everyone equally.

So, why did I wear black last week?  I wore black last week because of the respect I have for two of my closest friends at Wharton who wore black to start the hard conversations—to ask why, not to tell why.

I believe our biggest minority are informed citizens.  I saw the hurt in my friends and the passion behind what they believed their experiences to be and I wanted to understand. I realized that I am the majority, not in my race but as the un-informed majority. I wore black because for me it’s time to get out of this majority and get into the informed minority by asking the hard questions, asking why things are the way they are. I wore black so that I can show the people I love that I am willing to stop ignoring the world outside of my family and start the difficult conversations that need to happen so that we can make the informed minority the majority.  Wearing a black shirt wasn’t solving the problem, it helped me see that there is one.


jenna-kerner

Jenna Kerner WG’17

I’ve always thought of myself as an ally. I’m steadfast in my support of equality among races, genders, sexualities, sexual preferences – you name it. But my experience at Wharton has challenged me to think critically about my values and my behaviors, and evaluate whether they are in line with the perception I have of myself. 

This came to a head this summer, when a brave friend and classmate took to Facebook to share her story. This gist: if you are silent, you aren’t an ally.

When it comes to gender equality, I believe for women to achieve equal rights, women AND men must stand for those rights. Men must empower women and advocate for them. Silence might as well be a step backward.

My own hypocrisy was not lost on me; I expected my male classmates and friends to step up to the plate, while I was sitting in the stands myself.  I let fear of saying or doing the wrong thing get in the way of saying or doing anything.

I wore black because I’m still determining how I can be an ally and what that entails. Right now, it comes in the form of initiating conversations one-on-one or in small groups, encouraging others to think about privilege and find ways to speak up and support. I know it’s not enough, but I also know that every little bit counts, and that by letting perfect get in the way of good, we risk staying silent. 


jessie-spellman

Jessie Spellman WG’18

I had no non-white friends until my early twenties. Despite my formal education in race and ethnic relations and my professional background as a middle school math teacher in West Philadelphia, I didn’t become fully aware of how important it is for people with privilege to act as allies until I developed meaningful friendships and relationships with people of color. 

In 2012 I was at a Philadelphia bar that we’ve all been to as Wharton students. They were having a teacher happy hour; teachers got the first drink free. I went up to the bar, asked for a beer and went to sit at a table. One of the friends I was with tried to get a beer as well, but the bartender wanted to see his employee ID. This same bartender had just served me and two other white women free beers without asking for our employee IDs. Apparently there was something about my black male friend that made the bartender ask for a higher burden of proof from him. 

As a white person, if I declare there is a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility than a person of color will have. So I try to use my voice to call out the moments when I see those issues—that is a responsibility I think come with my privilege. In this case, it didn’t necessarily work —I exchanged some words with the bartender and was asked to leave. But my friend knew that I was willing to use my privilege to stand up for him and that made a difference. 

I wore black because I wanted to challenge my classmates to conversations about how we can all use our privilege to create change and make others feel supported 


sebastian-apud

Sebastian Apud WG’17

Over the years a community amongst black and Latinos based on a shared sense of struggle has emerged. My own patriotism and admission to Penn as an undergrad have been questioned because of my skin color. As a Latino at Wharton, I felt closer to my black brothers and sisters because my struggle felt like the struggle of my black peers.

Only recently did I begin to understand that their struggle is not my struggle. Yes, I might get harassed due to my skin color, but I don’t live in fear that my skin color makes me look dangerous, “like a bad dude” (helicopter pilot who witnessed the death of Terence Cutcher), or “like a demon” (police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown).” Imagine literally fearing for your life instead of a speeding ticket. That’s why I chose to be an ally.

My journey to understand and support my black peers is just beginning. I joined AAMBAA this year after my classmates shared the pain they were experiencing after yet another string of shootings of unarmed black men this summer. I realized we are often partners in a struggle, but there are times I need to be an ally, and I am working to gain a deeper understanding of what that means.

I do not know what it is like to be black. I wore black because, though I understand our shared discrimination well, I know I need to learn more about their discrimination, and I want to invite more of those conversations.


simonethomas

Simone Thomas WG’18

I was riding with a friend to Chicago when she suddenly thought that maybe she had a flat tire. We pulled over to investigate.  As we were getting out of the car, we saw a state trooper pull over behind us.  He came over to ask us what was wrong and we explained that although we were now ok, we thought that there was something wrong with her tire.

He said, “It looks fine to me.” but then proceeded to question us.  Where are you going?  Who are you going to see?  How long will you be staying?  We were likely visibly confused but cooperated answering all of his questions.  He then asked to see registration and licenses for both my friend and me.

The truth, if we are all willing to admit it, is that that officer probably wouldn’t have been so suspicious of us if we weren’t Black. And we might have challenged the fact that he had no legal right to run our information if we weren’t scared.  We drove off unscathed but there are countless others for whom things don’t end well.

Americans can no longer sit on the sidelines ignoring the system that makes it second nature for an officer like that to turn every Black person they encounter into a suspect.  Instead of challenging every such instance looking for justification we have to accept that though this experience may not be our own, it is a real one.

I wore black because we are so tired – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and we need our friends, peers, and colleagues to join us in a fight that it feels we’ve been fighting alone for far too long.  My friend and I were fortunate in that instance but I can’t ignore the countless others that didn’t face the same fate.


thad-hill

Thaddaeus Hill WG’18

Too often I’ve had experiences where I have to question if I am valued equally to my peers from different races.  I will share one story from a professional setting, that I feel is emblematic of the issues that exist in our country.

Two years ago, I was discussing college experiences with a white co-worker that attended a school in New Orleans during the Katrina hurricane.  She explained to me how the storm had tremendously impacted her college experience.  In the midst of sharing this story, she said the following phrase that I will never forget: “in the aftermath of Katrina, the news only showed the people that lived in the 9th ward, but there were real people that were seriously impacted by the storm as well.”  Subconsciously implying that the predominantly black inhabitants of the 9th ward were not real people.

I wore black because It can be easy to dehumanize people with whom you do not have any obvious similarities.  I say black lives matter because Terence Crutcher is a real person to me but to many people he isn’t. I wore black because Terence Crutcher could have just as easily been me or my brother.

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