I normally wouldn’t say anything when these tragedies occur. Maybe because I’ve seen too many times that nothing happens.
But after I heard my sister LaNise Babb say at a peaceful protest last weekend in Topeka, “Use your platform” and “educate,” I’ve felt compelled to speak out. So I am speaking to you as a son, brother, friend, former classmate or teammate, co-worker, physical therapist, husband and father who happens to be a black man.
I can only handle watching a few minutes of the news right now and often resort to watching cartoons just to make myself feel better and pretend we don’t live in a world where people who look like me are viewed as inferior. I don’t like thinking that if something like this were to happen to me that nothing would change, that my community would be destroyed, or more people would be hurt.
I used to think things weren’t that bad and the way I was living was normal, but I think you’ll find that there’s nothing “normal” about it.
When I’m at the grocery store, I walk in the center of the aisle and make sure I don’t put my hands in my pockets. If I do have to get my phone out, I just keep it out so no one thinks I’ve stolen anything. For this same reason, I don’t bring in any outside gum or food.
If I’m out shopping for clothes or shoes, I’m often greeted promptly by what seems like a helpful employee. It’s the part where they linger nearby and tidy up things that are already tidy that lets me know they think I’m up to no good. I wish I was overexaggerating this one, but these tactics were part of our training when I worked retail for “loss prevention.”
Out in parking lots, the subtle sound of doors locking is all too deafening. If it’s late or dark out, I have to make sure I take a wider path to get to my car or jingle my keys so that people can know I’m coming.
If I’m wearing a hoodie and I’m out in public, I usually don’t put the hood up, even if it’s super cold outside. This is something I’ve been doing since I saw what happened to Trayvon Martin.
When I drive, I do everything in my power to obey the traffic laws — driving the speed limit, wearing my seat belt, staying off my phone, using my turn signals etc. — to minimize the likelihood of being stopped.
If I’m going to go for a run in my neighborhood, I make sure I’m with my son, wife and/or our dogs just so my neighbors aren’t afraid of me. I did this even before Ahmaud Arbery’s death, but I haven’t had the courage to go out since then.
One thing I’ve noticed is that these things tend to happen a little less often when I’m wearing my work clothes, smiling and using a fancy vocabulary. But it’s gotten to a point where I can’t live comfortably because I’m spending all my time ensuring that OTHER PEOPLE feel comfortable.
My parents would warn me about these things when I was growing up. I would do what they told me but still didn’t think that would happen to me. I got good grades, played sports, was involved in numerous activities, went to college, and have a doctorate. But it doesn’t matter. The second I’m in an environment with people who haven’t had the opportunity to spend time with me, I’m just another black man.
Being young, strong and fast are thought to be good traits for an athlete, but they are perceived as making that person a greater threat in the real world. It’s even worse for those of us with a darker complexion because it’s viewed as scarier, so we have to work even harder to put others at ease.
Soon I’ll have to start teaching my 2-year-old son about the world so that a police officer doesn’t accuse him of selling drugs or stealing his own car, which happened to his old man.
To clarify for some folks out there, all lives do matter. Black Lives Matter, TOO. This cycle has to end now. Believe that these things are going on even when the cameras aren’t rolling. It’s going to take all of us to stand up for real change.
So everyone, please be safe out there and don’t forget we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
John Babb is a physical therapist in Topeka.