by Angela Jackson-Brown
I see you. I SEE you. I remember the first time my family and I went to see the movie, Avatar, and after we heard the Naʼvi characters say those profound words, we began saying them to each other, particularly when one person didn’t feel like he or she was being heard, we’d stop and say, “I SEE you,” in our best Na’vi voice. Sometimes the statement would cause silly, uncontrollable laughter, thus defusing the heat of the moment. Other times, it would do what the Na’vi in the film meant for it to do, which was it would remind the other person that he or she was being heard. That his or her feelings mattered.
In this racially charged time that we are living in, so many people, particularly black people, do not feel as if we are being seen. We feel like the unnamed character in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Ellison put it best, and sadly, the sentiment is still true today, when his character said, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” And it is this belief that black people have of not being seen, of not being validated, that creates the fear and the anger within our very souls. This feeling, no, this knowledge that some white police officers are so systematic in their inability to SEE our young black men that they would rather risk being fired or sent to prison than to take the chance to see the Michael Browns and the Eric Garners. Because when you see someone, truly SEE someone, you value their life. You value their humanity. You value their soul. You don’t shoot them ten unanswered times and you don’t choke them as they cry, “I can’t breathe,” eleven torturous times.
I am married to a wonderful, loving man who is white. We are the parents of two amazing children, one is black and my biological son, and the other is white and my husband’s biological son. Both boys grew up together, but both boys had very different childhoods. I would go so far as to say our white son has spent his whole life being “seen.” White privilege was the blanket that wrapped him up from the first day he took his first breath outside of his mama’s belly.
So, as one who mothered both boys, I never feared for my stepson’s life the way I do for my son. Not because I love my son more, but because unlike my stepson, my son’s brown skin makes him a suspect in the eyes of many white people because so often they don’t SEE what I SEE. They look at my son and they see the monikers that are often tagged onto brown boys, such as: “thugs,” “killers,” “reprobates.”
Not once in the life of my stepson have I worried about him getting shot by the convenience store clerk because he was sagging his pants or looking “angry.” Not once have I worried that a routine traffic stop could result in my stepson being falsely arrested, or worse, shot dead with little or no regard. Not once have I said to my stepson, “Smile. Let people know you aren’t a threat.” Not once. Because I know white privilege is the very visible cloak that protects my stepson through his daily endeavors. He is over six feet tall and weighs over 200 pounds, but no little, old white ladies clutch their purses when he walks by and no white men unconsciously reach for their concealed weapon in case he “gets out of line.” I know that his whiteness operates as a buffer on those days when he is not being pleasant or nice. I know that even on his worst days, society will give him a break. A pass. And with every fiber of my soul, I know that my brown boy will not be afforded such a pass. And that makes me angry. And scared. And powerless.
Angela Jackson-Brown is an award winning writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Her work has been widely published in journals like The Louisville review, New Southerner Literary Review and 94 Creations, to name a few. She is the author of the debut novel, Drinking From A Bitter Cup, and is currently hard at work writing her second novel.