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How we look can affect how we're treated. We all know that we cannot roll in from the construction site, hungry as a bear, go to a five-star restaurant without changing clothes, and expect to be seated. Drive the wrong car, wear your hair the wrong length, show public affection to the wrong sex, race, or culture, and let's face it, people will look at you differently.

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Philip Fivil Nessen 
Black don't wash off. Put us in a nice suit, nice wheels, nice zip code, and make us members of the right club, and some fool with a badge is still going to shake us down to see what falls out.

The summer before my junior year at Brown, I ran down College Hill early one Saturday morning to catch a Bonanza Bus to Boston. There I was, a black man wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, racing through the deserted city. A police officer drove out of nowhere and stopped in front of me as I ran across the last street before the bus stop. I literally fell onto the hood of the car, and when I pushed myself back, my mother's oldest son was looking down the barrel of a revolver. My crime: I fit the description of a bank robber.

Here we go again. I was only twenty, but this was the third time I'd fit the description of a bank robber. The first time, I was sixteen and riding my bicycle home from my dentist's office in Hempstead, New York. Do you know how your face looks when you just had a cavity filled? Cop didn't care. The dispatcher sent four cars to arrest one of me that time. The bank robber—who was on a motorcycle—got away.

Anyway, I don't recall Providence banks being open on a Saturday at 8 a.m. back in 1980. I don't believe that, today, showing a Brown ID should immediately clear a suspect, but it was sufficient for the officer to lose interest and speed off without even an apology.

I'll be honest: I am boring. I have never had a criminal incident. My teenage years were not troubled. I've never worn dreadlocks or tattoos. I've been affiliated with no gangs, and have no history of alcohol or drug abuse, of domestic violence, or of any "issues" that would profile me as a troublemaker. I even had a defense department security clearance for five years. At one time Uncle Sam knew more about me than my mother.

I have been harassed my whole life for being a black man in the wrong place, i.e., living in a white world. I have been harassed going for a walk in downtown Boston, and sitting in my car in the San Jose Hills waiting for a real estate agent. Israeli security agents refused to believe I was not a basketball player; I must be a spy because no one sends a black man to Israel on business.

I cycle more than 100 miles a week all over the San Francisco Bay area. I will not leave the house without an ID, because I know there are nervous housewives looking out their windows as I ride through their neighborhoods at eighteen miles an hour.

If I sound a bit sensitive, ask yourself how many gun barrels you have looked down with a policeman or some officer of the state at the other end. It's happened to me about a dozen times. Ask yourself how many times you have been arrested for making an illegal U-turn one mile from your house. I drive a nice sports car. I would never make a quick run to the grocery store in bummy house clothes. If I don't look like I own it, somebody is going to check to see if it is mine.

Black don't wash off.

Royston Taylor lives in Oakland, California.





Comments (10)
04/04/08
 
nicely done, Royston. Being Black and female, I've never encountered the barrel of a gun, but appreciate your willingness to have us take a peek in to your world. What motivated you to share this piece?
 
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04/15/08
 
I thought the police were looking for you for stealing my bike. No just kidding Royston, this is a really interesting piece tracing the obstacles we have been face on a daily basis all of our lives. While some things change somethings don't. Tell my girl Jazz I said whats up.
 
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04/15/08
 
As a female, I've had it a little easier than you. However, I clearly remembered being pulled over three times in Los Angeles during a two-month stretch in which I was driving a lot with a black artists who happened to have dreads. Even alone more recently, a cop pulled me over and said my car was emitting fumes. I asked for a supervisor as soon as he stopped me and he told the supervisor that even though we could see no fumes at that time, that they existed when he pulled me over. Although I do a great deal of volunteer work with the LAPD, I never pull out my i.d. when pulled over just to see how they treat me. Even as recently as three months ago, I was stopped and given a jaywalking ticket in Van Nuys, California, which is part of the LAPD patrol. When I questioned their accuracy and told them they had written false information on the ticket, two other officers pulled up and the four of them stood trying to intimidate me with their arms folded across their chests. All this for one black female. The additional officers that drove up said they drove up because they had nothing else to do. This is a city where a murder happens almost every day. A gal's got to wonder. One thing everyone should know is that if you are stopped by a police officer, you have the right to call for his supervisor and you have the right to request an investigation of the officer's actions.
 
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04/19/08
 
As the one lady who commented on your writing said, I really appreciate a look into your world. Honest. I am a white woman. I dont come even close to having all the answers to all of these issues. To me there is absolutely no excuse from any point of view for the police officer(s) to not apologize for their treatment of you when they realized you were not the person they were trying to apprehend. There is no excuse for people assuming something is wrong/you must be suspect because you're black riding a bike, running or whatever. 
I've experienced a lot of prejudice for being female in a man's world and I did have childhood trauma to overcome. This combined with what you've suffered, what horrible things happen all over the world, and I am concluding this: the hugest power we have is to forgive. And to live in Love. Does that sound nutty to you? Probably. Or you're thinking I must not have really had much that tough to overcome. Everything that's been mentioned is symptomatic of how separated everyone thinks they are from each other; how much we live in fear. Who do we each have to be to change this now and to NOT pass any of this down to our children? Who do we have to be to NOT teach our children that this is just how life "is", how reality "is", that we can change our world? 
Sir, could you tell me what I can do/be as a white woman to make sure no other person, black/Hispanic/white/other is treated as you have been? I look forward to what you have to say in that regard. Really. Teach me and others. Communicate. Forgive. We all have our stories of our mistreatments, our scars, although some are way worse than yours and some are far less. I think it is time to bless and release what has happened to us in honor of what can be created, both for the people suffering now in all parts of the world and for the children who will be our inheritors. 
Thank you for your article
 
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05/14/08
 
"The Color of Water, A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" by James McBride- 
check this out.  
Thanks for your writting, 
white mother.
 
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05/22/08
 
I really enjoyed reading this article. As an African American, I agree, color do not wash off. "America" wants to say that we all are treated equally but why is there still a high percentage of "blacks" being arrested?
 
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05/25/08
 
I guess we all make assumptions Deborah. Why assume I'm a male.
 
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12/10/15
 
I missed this back in 2008 but it's still prevalent today. _WB (driving/running/walking/... While Black) is real. Muslims are also feeling the brunt with the recent domestic terrorism events. I know life isn't fair but does it have to be so unfair to a given race?
 
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04/28/16
 
Timely article , With regards to witch , if somebody is requiring to merge two images , my co-workers came across piece here http://goo.gl/ip8Xan.
 
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09/05/16
 
I want to commend you on sharing A part your life with us. The only way to understand A person of color and what they go through with law enforcement officer is to be Of Color. you can have video Of an Incident That's gone bad and there are people out there who will still question what that person did to have these things happen to them, it's truly unbelievable.
 
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