Last night, this quote, attributed to Spike Lee Joint on Twitter (@imnorolemodel), was a topic of conversation:
Telling black folks to be “respectful” to police to avoid dying is like telling women to dress “appropriately” to avoid rape
My first reaction was that’s really interesting but it’s a false analogy, but is it? After some wonderful conversation with my husband and a beer, we determined that these two pieces of advice are eerily similar.
First, the issue of what is respectful and appropriate are relative. What do we mean when we tell women to dress appropriately? In general, that means not to show too much breast or too much leg and that our clothes aren’t too tight. But what’s tight or chesty for me, might not be tight or chesty to you. It’s the same when talking about respect. In general, we can say that showing respect to the police means remaining calm, following directions, and no back talk, but even those actions can be interpreted differently by different people. Even saying “thank you” the wrong way can be considered back talk by some people. So this is amazingly terrible advice because you never know who you’ll be dealing with and how they’ll interpret your look or your actions.
Second and more importantly, we’ve learned through the years women get raped despite how they are dressed, and police kill black suspects despite the level of respect a black person shows. Women are raped in a variety of settings, wearing a variety of clothing, and black folks are killed even when respect isn’t cited as an issue. There are numerous instances in recent history where black folks were killed or severely beaten, and nowhere in the media was it mentioned that the suspect had been “disrespectful.” In the case of Freddy Gray, we know that he ran from police, was unlawfully arrested, and while in custody died, but at no point was it said that Freddy Gray had become disrespectful or even violent. Cases like Freddy Gray’s shows us that acting respectful has no real effect on the outcome of a situation involving the police.
These two pieces of advice will always fall flat because there is no pattern of dress that guarantees safety from a rape, and there is no pattern of behavior that a black person can engage in that will guarantee that he/she won’t be killed by the police. It seems to me that if a man wants to rape or if a cop wants to kill, they will. Here are the patterns we do know: If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know. If you’re black, you’re more likely to be stopped, detained, and killed by a cop.
What disturbs me most about this analogy is the truth in it. Yes, there are things women can do to avoid rape, and yes, there are things that black folks can do to avoid getting killed by the police. But those things, like staying home more and not going out at night, are unacceptable. Do we really need to lock up more than half our population so others will stop doing what they shouldn’t be doing anyway? Of course not. Just as we have to teach men and boys that rape is wrong (and for some what rape is), we have to teach police officers that brutality and racism is wrong and give those ideas legal backing instead of blaming the victim.