Stereotypes and the slaughter of innocent black men

Yesterday I wrote a piece for my Millennial Mind column about stereotypes. It got a lot of attention, despite rightfully being overpowered by the coverage and reactions to this week’s latest police killings of innocent black men.

The merciless, hateful killings have left me, like many others, completely at a loss about how to respond. I mean yeah, I emailed my representatives and I donated a paltry sum to the Alton Sterling Family Scholarship fund, but will either of those things do anything to stop this happening again?

So I’ve been thinking about stereotypes. I worry a lot about stereotypes. I always have.

When I was 14, I thought of it as my personal challenge and motto to defeat the stereotype of the unsocialized, awkward home-schooled kid. God forbid someone look at me and think, “Ugh, another homeschooler.” I spoke out against people lumping all homeschoolers into the same boat because of one bad experience with a kid whose glasses fell down her nose, whose pants were pulled up too high and who asked uncomfortable questions. Look at me, what a little activist, all the while completely ignoring the significant portion of my life when I fit that exact description.

When I was 20 and a Christian, I worried about being perceived as a judgmental, hateful Christian. I kept my mouth shut in religious debates and tried to blend in with my more agnostic-minded friends. I condemned the actions of those Christians that “gave the rest of us a bad name.”

And now, as a 25-year-old who is quitting a job after 11 months, I’m worrying about being perceived as “one of those millennials.” You know, the self-absorbed job hoppers. Please don’t judge me while I take this selfie and Snapchat it to a select group of my friends who really don’t care that I’m three rows from the stage at Summerfest.

I hate being lumped in with a stereotype I think is unjust. It irks me to no end. But all the while, the worst that can happen to me is to be passed by a sneering bystander, or maybe to end up eating my lunch alone.

There’s a whole race in America that has a lot more to fear because of unfathomably unjust stereotypes. To read the headlines, you’d think the stereotypical black man in America is an escaped convicted serial killer, capable of ending a police officer’s life with his mind powers alone. What else could justify shooting a man in the back as he runs in rightful fear for his life? Or shooting a man as he reaches for his driver’s license, in compliance with an officer’s order?

Stereotypes persist because of every person who lets one experience with one human dictate how they will view all future humans of the same description, without a second thought. We’ve all been on the receiving end of that at some point, but most of us haven’t had our lives endangered because of it.

I’m still for the most part failing at my goal to befriend people of color in Wisconsin. To be honest, I’m not exactly getting an A+ at making friends in general, but it doesn’t help that I participate in two almost exclusively white sports – ultimate Frisbee and rock climbing. I’m ashamed of that. But one thing I have done in the last year is read a lot of eye-opening non-fiction books about the experience of minorities in this country. One that keeps running through my brain right now is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reading his book, I cried over the realization that all of American history through the present has been dominated by whites depriving blacks of the rights to their bodies.

I read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, another heartbreaking account of injustice against black and minority men and women in the U.S., many of whom were wrongfully given the death penalty. It’s opening my eyes to the rampant disparities between how I am treated on a given day and how a black person would be treated.

Case in point: I recently camped out in front of a new climbing gym that opened on Milwaukee’s east side in hopes of winning prizes for the first 50 climbers inside the doors at the grand opening. Me and about 15 others — all white — set up tents on the narrow strip of dirt between the building and the sidewalk, with permission of the owners. But then we proceeded to take over the sidewalk with camp chairs, play card games, string a slackline between two public street lights, drink from barely concealed cans of beer and toss a Frisbee through the street in between passing cars. That’s what the photo posted along with this rant refers to. Someone commented that we weren’t in a good neighborhood and needed to watch our backs — it’s more accurate to say we were four or five blocks from a so-so neighborhood, and four or five blocks in every other direction from great neighborhoods — but I knew we would have no problems.

For one, I refuse to call southern Riverwest a bad neighborhood. And two, do I need to say it again? We were white. We had nothing to fear.

Cops drove by almost every 15 minutes with extremely puzzled expressions. It’s safe to say the Adventure Rock owners didn’t warn the local police force that their patrons might be camping out the night before their opening. But all the hassle we got from the police was a cop rolling down his window and asking what we were doing. An honest answer, a shrug, and he drove off, to be followed 15 minutes later by another curious officer on the beat.


Not suspicious.

Rolling down the window.

Not brandishing a deadly weapon.

Driving off.

Not shooting us in the back for what could very easily have been construed as vandalism, disturbing the peace, public intoxication or any number of trumped-up charges that black kids and adults go to prison for or are killed for in this country daily.

White young adults aren’t presumed to be criminals. That’s not the stereotype. The stereotypical white kid might cure cancer some day, or at least become president.

When will all Americans get that same benefit of the doubt? When will we change that presumption and begin to value black lives the same way we value white lives?

It’s my responsibility to make that vision a reality. And if you’re white, it’s your responsibility too.

Here’s a great article, albeit a year old, about some concrete steps you can take beyond just sharing this post with a trending hashtag. I also highly recommend reading both books I mentioned, along with Evicted, by Matthew Desmond. It’s set in Milwaukee, and it’s a painfully fascinating look at how a profit-driven private housing system in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods traps its residents in poverty and squalor.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. DeMarcus Akeem says:

    Always a fan. Since your work in Dayton. Just wanted to thank you for this well-written, poignant revelation of sorts. You articulated very clearly what I struggle to suggest to my White friends. I say suggest, because I’m pretty exhausted with “educating” people about my life experiences in the matter of one uncomfortable conversation. This is encouraging. You get it. Thanks.


  2. Sorry no. says:

    Olivia, initially I came to your website with optimism. As a prodigious reader authors and journalists where always something I had revered, looking to follow a younger writer was something I thought would be interesting. I was simply disgusted with this article, your on some mission to make friends of color, tell me how many cop friends do you have, how many friends of yours have died in Afghanistan, how many times have you personally saved someones life, or held someone while they died. I would make a racial distinction here but it doesn’t matter to me nor would it to you if you cared about the quality of someones character more than the color of their skin.


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