A single story does not define who someone is, and it most definitely does not define a whole ethnic group. Not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Germans are Nazis, and not all African Americans are criminals. However, there are many blacks in the world today who have to accommodate for white people in order to not be stereotyped as “criminal-like.” They have to be careful with how they dress, how they walk, and how they talk because of their fear of being pushed into a stereotypical box. “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space” by Brent Staples is a story of a young black graduate student who describes the discrimination he endures every day because of his skin color and explains how he accommodates for the white people who are afraid of him. Staples shows us that discrimination does not have to be verbal, it also shows through people’s actions and thoughts; it is important we break down these walls of racist stereotypes and build bridges of understanding between one another.
Staples starts off the essay with an anecdote; he is walking down a street in a Chicago neighborhood far behind a young white woman, and after frantically looking back several times, she starts running as if he has a knife or gun in his hands. After the woman starts running, he says, “Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny,” and he begins to feel “surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed, all at once”. This scarring incident makes him realize his “ability to alter public space in ugly ways,” and that he is indistinguishable from all the other criminals who are black. After this realization, he begins to become familiar with how scared people act around him; they lock their car doors when he walks by, cross to the other side of the street instead of passing him, clench their bags when they see him, avoid eye contact, etc. In his hometown Chester, Pennsylvania, he was known as a well-behaved boy and now, in Chicago, he is seen as the complete opposite which was an uncomfortable transition for him. He then talks about two instances in his work and in a jewelry store when the workers treated him as if he was a criminal; both of these incidents led him to start making himself less threatening. He accommodates for them by moving with care, letting people clear the lobby before he enters, and whistling melodies from popular classical composers in order to appear less scary.
This essay is a perfect example of the demeaning stereotypes that hang above black people in our society today. Staples is thrown into society’s tiny stereotype box and is looked at as a criminal solely because of the color of his skin; if we treat blacks as if they are criminals when they are not, they may start to believe it and act just as that (self-fulfilling prophecy). It mentally screws a person up when they are treated as something less than they are; it makes them feel alienated as if they are not even a real person anymore. Let’s face the facts: a white man is just as likely to be a criminal; however, people who are black are twice as likely to be killed by a police officer while being unarmed compared to a white individual. It is because of the color of their skin that their very own human rights are ripped from their hands. A single story cannot possibly embody the lives of every black person; every single one of them has a unique story, and it is our duty to acknowledge that.
After being thrown into the box with the other black criminals, Staples starts to change things in his life just to accommodate for these white people. However, even though he does those things, he still has to encounter discrimination every day when he is just walking on the street. He states, “I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the other side of the street rather than pass me”. He begins to feel alienated so in turn, he begins to whitify himself. He states, “I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright sunny selections from Vivaldi; four seasons,” (Staples). How dare they? How dare they put him in this box? How dare they make him feel this way? How dare they change him? What gives them the right? No one should ever have to grow accustomed to people being scared of them just because of the color of their skin. He is a human being with a story, a heritage, and feelings; no one gets to take his human rights away from him. It is not fair that he has to change who he is just to accommodate for people who are too shallow to get to know him.
How did we let it get this far? In 1955, what did Rosa parks sit in a white man’s seat for? In 1963, what did Martin Luther King stand in front of 250,000 people to preach for? In 1964, what did Nelson Mandela stay in jail for 20 years for? They surely did not do all of those things just for us to reverse back in time. If any of these activists were alive right now, they would be extremely disappointed. Although we emphasize the importance of freedom and rights in America, there are so many black people who are not free; they have their rights and freedoms yanked from their very hands every single day.
Staples uses this essay to help us understand what it is like to be a black individual in a society that is driven by stereotypes. Instead of judging people based on these stereotypes, let’s learn more about them, about who they are, where they came from, and where they are going; everyone deserves that chance. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Let that day be today, not tomorrow, not a few weeks from now, TODAY. Let us break down the wall of stereotypes and instead, build bridges between each other.
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