I am a woman, I am black, I am Latina, I am originally from Colombia. I came to the US around five years ago to start graduate school. I currently live in Lincoln, Nebraska with my husband, who is also black and Colombian. We live near campus. I could tell you stories about what is like to be black and Latino in the US, I could tell you what it is like to go to a Latino grocery and have people congratulate you because you sound as a native Spanish speaker. Apparently, some people think Latin America lacks black people. I could tell you all of these, but this time I chose to tell you about our first-time life encounter with a police officer.
It was the summer of 2016. I had been in Lincoln for about one year by then. My husband had just moved to the US. After finishing my graduate school experiments for the day, I went home, and my husband and I decided to go for a walk. It was a wonderful afternoon, and we both love the warm weather. I do not remember what we were wearing, but my husband was definitely not wearing a red t-shirt.
The sunset was coming to an end and we were heading back home. While we were talking, maybe laughing, we heard a car behind us, which immediately pulled up in front of us. It was a police car! A white police officer got out of the car and approached us with his right hand in his hip, touching an object. What was there? Was it a gun? Was it a taser? I couldn’t tell. What I could tell you is that he was carrying a flashlight in his left hand. He was intimidating, and, at the same time, he seemed annoyed.
He started asking questions like, “Where are you coming from?” and “What were you doing?” He was especially angry with my husband, and he did not take the flashlight away from his face at any moment, nor did he remove his right hand from the object at his hip. I was scared, I was terrified, but I said, “We were just walking!” “Walking?” He asked. “Show me your hands!” He yelled at us. Then, he told my husband “And carefully, very carefully show me your pockets” and, after that, “Show me your hands again and turn them down.” At that moment, I was thinking that we, Colombians have been not been trained to make the “right movements” when you are in front of the police or in any situation like that. People are not supposed to be trained for that!
Then, he continued asking, “Where were you again?” and “Where are you coming from?” And he continued keeping the light on my husband’s face, his right hand on the unknown object, and repeating the same questions. My husband remained calm the whole time and said once again, “We were just walking!” I mean, we did not know what else to answer, we did not do anything wrong, and this was the first time we had an actual encounter with a cop in our lives. Finally, I just said, “Well, we were walking, we are coming from the university.”
“Oh!” He said, “You are just students! Sorry, wrong guy! I am looking for a black man in a red t-shirt!” And then he left! Really? A black man in a red t-shirt? So, what was all that show about? Let’s face it: he saw and stopped us because we were black, and looking for a black man apparently includes all black men. It did not matter what we were wearing. At that moment, I remembered the story of Otis Johnson, an innocent man in New York, who spent forty years in prison because he was wearing a tan jacket and walking near a park where a ‘suspicious’ man in a tan jacket was selling drugs and shot an officer.
When I told my story to another Latino, he told me, “Do not take it personally, he was doing his job!”, “That was not because you guys are black”, and “I do not think police in Lincoln are like that.” Really? I thought about the people who think that racism is only in our minds and I ironically joke about that misconception all the time. However, I also understand that, in our academic environment, we live in a bubble. Outside that bubble where people do not know you, is when the prejudices start. The only thing I told this person was, “Well, I guess if the description of a suspicious person would have been a white man in a red t-shirt, he would have stopped all white men and treated them like that, right?”
I am not sharing this story for you to feel sorry for us, I just decided to tell this to continue opening our eyes and be conscious about racism. In my country, Colombia, recently, a black young man, Anderson Arboleda, was killed by a police officer who hit him on the head with a police baton. No media covered the story, and no police officer has been charged. In the US, the murder of George Floyd has moved us. Those cases are just a representation of the hundreds of black people murdered by the police. The reality is that there is no racial equality in the United States or Latin America, and black people have to face that every day.
This is an invitation for all of us to be aware that racism and racial profiling exist! Yes, even in college towns. Just because you have not been in a similar situation, it does not mean that racism and profiling do not exist. I can understand that you may not feel what others are living, but read and understand the weight your friends might be carrying. Be an ally, support your peers, stands for what is right, and please, do not justify the unjustifiable.
That night we came home, we cooked, we ate dinner, and we did not talk about the incident. I guess we were processing what had just happened to us. That night, I felt sadness for my brothers and sisters in the US. I felt sadness for the sons and daughters of Africa around the world. That night, I felt empowered for being here in the academia, because that is also a form of activism. By being here, we can pave the way for those that come after us. That night, I went to bed and thanked God because my husband was not wearing a red t-shirt.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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Photo credit: Author Lisbeth Vallecilla Yepez