BY HANIFA L. BARNES
I have sons. Three sons. Three black sons. They wear hoodies. They love loud music. I am powerless against the disparaging perceptions they will face. And some days, I feel like a powerless black mother.
Subjective perception is the mother of all fear. When it comes to skin color, it is natural for non-minorities to err on the side of caution. This heightened sensitivity causes tragic reactions as evidenced in the Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and countless other cases where young black children have lost their lives in the name of self-defense.
The other day I was walking in the local grocery store with my 15-year old son after picking him up from basketball practice. Of course, he was dressed in sweats, athletic flip-flops and a hoodie. Taking after his father, he stands at about 5’10″ and towers over my 5’2″ frame as we traipse through the aisles. Yet, he has an unassuming countenance that is quite reserved and laid back. He looks like a big kid — non-threatening.
The two of us were chatting about the last game and his recent invitation to practice with Varsity. We were on our way to check out when I decided to pause for a moment and listen to a gentleman offering a great deal on the local paper. The benefits were appealing, so I signed up. Soon after, the salesman asked my son if he was attending school. My son answered yes, and we listened to subscribers’ online benefits for research papers. As we walked off, my son asked an interesting question. Why did the salesman assume that he was NOT in school? Why couldn’t he suggest the research benefits without asking if he was in school? Was it the hoodie, the flip-flops or part of his sales pitch? Whatever the reason, it was based on the salesman’s assumptions, and a 5’10 black male teenager wearing a hoodie sparks quite a perception.
The salesman had a right to his assumptions just as all people have a right to their feelings. I can not discount another person’s perceived feelings and fears based on personal experiences. In fact, these encounters allow for teaching moments that better equip my son for the experiences to come. But, when heightened fear and sensitivity based on inherent sociological fear of skin color transforms into a physically violent response, there may be no recourse or teachable moment; and accountability should NOT boil down to a decision rooted in subjective perception.
This obscure subjectivity is also a part of jury deliberation when determining reasonable doubt in criminal cases. In its simplest form, the standard of proof considers the mind of a “reasonable person.” Well if that isn’t subjective as hell, what is? Each juror’s experiences, disappointments, and biases collide to form a subjective perception of the facts, hinging determination of reasonable doubt on a visceral connection instead of objectivity. Sensitivity to hoodies and loud music are only a by-product of the real problem: skin color.
Until this matter is addressed through development of objective standards of proof in criminal matters, there will continually be disparities of justice based on skin color.
As a black mother of three black sons, I am powerless against another person’s fear or sensitivity to my sons. I can only pray that they escape the fray and live to change the story.
Hanifa Barnes is a writer, lawyer and former educator who provides commentary on society and culture from a millennial woman’s perspective. As a millennial woman, she appreciates having a career, loving God and husband first, with kids a close second. The Liberian native hails from Georgia, but currently resides in New Jersey. Check out her blog at www.mommy2go.com, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @MommyTwoGo.