We’re raised by certain aphorisms. Rules of thumb. Heuristics.
You shouldn’t judge by appearances.
Well and good. A sound policy.
And yet, so many of us just…can’t…not.
A black man jogging through an affluent white neighborhood is chased down, confronted, and then shot to death. They did not see a man jogging, did not notice that, despite their claim they thought he was a burglar, there was nothing on him (bag, tools, stolen good, notebook), nothing about him suggested someone fleeing after illegal activity. He was jogging. Video before the fatality shows someone running as a jogger would run. At this point, it is fair to say, unequivocally, had he been white, no one would have given him a second look.
It is, then, fair to ask—what went through the minds of those who killed him? The 911 call specifically said “a black man running through the neighborhood.”
Is turnabout fair play?
I’m looking at some of the lock-down protesters, the ones who showed up armed to rallies, and one in particular where the subject is stating to those filming him that he will not live in fear.
Look at the mugshots of the two men responsible for that jogger’s death and look at some of these protesters. Let us play the same game.
I see round-headed, puffy man/boys with beards grown and groomed to resemble an abstraction of an Old West mountain man. Or possibly some modern exemplar of a Biblical prophet. (It’s amazing how often the two are conflated, if not overtly then by association through signage.) There is a puffiness to the visage, a line-less youth that is not a matter of age so much as void. I see a face masking a mind waiting for something to fill it. And below that? I dressed like that at age ten, playing in the neighborhood with my buddies, who likewise assumed the garb of G.I. Joe and chased around killing imaginary enemies. That was all pretend. And so is this.
Showing up in military drag, armed, and being a spectacle is all show. But look at that presentation. Is this an adult?
“I will not live in fear!” But everything about him is a scream of just how afraid he is. Frightened of just about anything he doesn’t understand and has neither the intention or the ability to understand.
Just going by appearances, this is a round, soft white child of privilege. Not the kind of privilege of the 1%, no, but it has always been a distraction to point out their privilege as if it’s the only kind that exists or matters. This, before us, in full display, is the more common and less examined. This is the privilege of someone who has never missed a meal. Who has never been denied admission to anything because of appearances. The privilege of knowing that nothing stands in his way except his own disinterest, disinclination, or distraction.
The privilege of knowing he can show up in public that way and not be arrested, harassed by authorities, or shot.
Because, looking at that face, you know if he thought there was any real danger, he wouldn’t be there. He has never faced an actual challenge in his life. By that I mean a challenge to his very existence. This posturing is in response to abstractions, not realities. And his method of choice is insincere and lazy. He has probably never had to really labor at anything in his life, either. Things have been provided for him. Money, certainly, nothing he’s wearing is cheap, especially not the arms, and if he has the disposable resources to equip himself thus, he has no concerns about rent or food or medicine. This is not the costume of someone who has ever had to make those choices.
This is also not someone who has ever been faced with death because he happened to be in the wrong neighborhood. He didn’t think twice about loading up and marching on city hall (literally) and assumes that an idea (the Constitution) will protect him. And based on the sloganeering around him and his own verbiage, he has very little understanding what that idea actually means. He seems—he appears—to feel it means that he has the right to do whatever he wants and the very state he is claiming is oppressive will defend that right. A contradiction? Not to him. Paradox requires some nuance, some experience, some grasp of cause and consequence to parse intelligently. (We all hold contradictory ideas at one time or another, we live with paradox, but it is a manageable condition given a studied sense of the appropriate and the self-reflective acknowledgement of the tension between duty and desire, responsibility and license, reality and fantasy.)
Quite likely some combination of tantrum, cleverness, and guileless insouciance has gotten him whatever he wanted his whole life. (That what he may have wanted was acquirable suggests he lacked the imagination to want what he could not by dint of circumstance have. But that’s consistent—a lack of imagination is one of the deficits that have put him where he presently is.)
Am I being harsh? I am judging by appearance, certainly. As I said, turnabout is fair play. I could very well be wrong. He could be a budding Constitutional scholar, with an interest in quantum physics, and a hobbyist’s knowledge of philately. It may be he can cite chapter and verse of Kantian ethics or the minutiae of Egyptian pharaonic history. He could be in the running for a chess championship or a fine sculptor. I could be entirely wrong about him.
But judging by appearances, I can only conclude what I have outlined.
How does that feel? Two (or three, depending on how things pan out) of his phenotypical brethren judged by appearance and killed a man. They were demonstrably wrong about him. (I don’t care that Arbrey stepped into a construction site and had a look around. A call to the police about that was sufficient and then leave it alone. Let the professionals handle it, that’s what they do. But I wonder if that call would have been made had he been white. In either case, there is no justification for going vigilante)
How serious am I about that young man (and he may not be all that young, but he looks young, which is another prima facie conclusion based on appearances) playing at militiaman? Well, you have to ask if I would stop at my assessment. He’s making a statement, though. The two instances are not the same. Arbrey was jogging, not making a statement. Our G.I. Joe Wannabe is claiming a purpose in his appearance. He put all that on with the intent to be judged.
But I’m more than willing to believe there is more to him than that. You have to ask, does he even care if we are willing to see past the message?
See, if he doesn’t, if all that matters to him is the message, the symbol, the expression of personal opinion, then it is perfectly fine to judge him by appearances. He has to ask himself at some point if what he thinks he is conveying is actually what he is conveying.
Because, despite his claims, all I see is a frightened, shallow, play-acting child desperately wanting to be something he has no hope of being: relevant.
Really, he shouldn’t be surprised if we “get the wrong idea” about him. After all, people who appear very like him get the wrong idea about everyone they’re afraid of all the time.