You may recognize and even relate to a body like mine.
I stand at 5 feet 3 inches. I have birthmarks and moles that cover my face, legs and arms. I have asthma, so I have to carry an inhaler. And I’m a college cheerleader, so I’m pretty flexible and I’m described as strong and athletic.
But you could not handle my body.
You could not handle being watched when you’re shopping in the grocery store. You could not handle hearing “Suspect is a hostile dark figure who has thuggish tendencies.” You could not handle what would happen after those words are spoken.
If you were living every day in my body, you would not know what to do or how to react.
For a long time, I also didn’t know how people treated bodies like mine differently. I lived my best years as a child not knowing, until I was taught that it was a requirement for me to know.
“If you were living every day in my body, you would not know what to do or how to react.”
I grew up being able to play outside freely without fearing for my life, unlike 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was gunned down playing with a toy BB gun, and being able to sleep in my princess-decorated room without worrying about intruders, unlike 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was sleeping on the couch until her apartment was raided by police.
On Feb. 26, 2012, a day before my 11th birthday, I witnessed what my family warned me about. My grandmother, father and other family members rushed into our living room and turned on the television. An unarmed teen had been killed in Sanford, Florida. I wondered why anyone would want to hurt a teenager. I was about to be a teenager, too, so who would want to hurt a kid like me? I learned later that the kid was Trayvon Martin, and the person who killed him was George Zimmerman.
“Over a pack of Skittles and a can of Arizona tea, can you believe it?” my grandmother said.
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a boy not that much older than me would be gunned down by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch guy. I couldn’t believe that a 158-pound teen could overpower a 200-pound man.
On July 13, 2013, the final day of the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman case, I couldn’t believe the verdict: not guilty on all counts. A 17-year-old boy walking down the street minding his own business is buried in the ground, but the neighborhood watch guy gets to walk free. Trayvon can never see his family again, but the neighborhood watch guy gets to have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with his. That day I finally understood what my family warned me about.
Am I next?
Since Trayvon’s death, that question has stayed in my mind. How could it not when the devaluing of his life continues? Four years after his death, bids were being cast in an auction for the gun used to fatally gun down Trayvon; George Zimmerman curated the auction. I couldn’t believe it; he was actually signing Skittles bags like an author at a book signing.
I wake up every day hoping my body will not be reported on the front of newspapers or plastered over social media sites. Every day, I pray that my body will never have to come in contact with a law enforcement officer’s body. My body hurts and feels the pain of someone being ripped away from my community every time I learn that another Black person is subjected to racist violence.
In homes, people are being taught to hate the body and skin color I’m living in.
In the streets, people learn to hate the body and skin color I’m living in.
I know no matter how hard we fight, we just will never win. The education system berates us, and the criminal justice system waits for us. Things were never meant for us to win in America.
Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Atatiana Jefferson. Breonna Taylor. Pamela Turner. George Floyd — some of the names of bodies that look like mine handled by the wrong hands. Now I’m so desensitized to police violence done to Black people that the next name that trends in the news, my eyes just cannot produce any more tears.
My body carries the pain that is felt in my community.
My body can’t forget the names of victims in the Black community, and it must remember what to do when I’m faced with law enforcement.
“Put your hands on the dashboard and announce when you’re reaching for your license,” my father tells me.
I have been instilled with this phrase since the day after Trayvon’s death, the day of my 11th birthday. I know this phrase like the back of my hand, but even those two steps won’t calm my body down, praying that responding with “I’m sorry officer,” would be enough to let me off with a warning.
Am I next?
My body is scared of what might happen next and one wrong move could be my last.
I hope this helps you see what I have to think about every day. You still might not be able to understand what I go through daily. The fact I can list names, ages and dates of bodies that look like mine makes me sick to my stomach and my head hurts. I hope every day that my name doesn’t become one someone else can list off, too.
You probably don’t have to worry too much about your body. I wish I was able to do whatever I wanted to freely with my body. I’m afraid to jog around my neighborhood. I’m afraid to even move in my house or sleep in my bed without worrying if my body will be a victim in a crossfire. Don’t get me wrong — I was born into this body and this body will forever be mine. My body knows when it’s comfortable in spaces with bodies that are similar and when to be professional and cautious in unfamiliar spaces.
I love my body.
I don’t love how I’m perceived as a walking threat.
I love that my body is not broken.
I don’t love that people judge me based on the outer appearance of my body.
I love that my body is a part of a culture and can be loved by other bodies.
I don’t love that I have to worry if my body can make it to the next day.
Do you think you could handle my body now?
Ashanti McLaurin is a Senior at the University of Pittsburgh studying English Writing and Political Science and can be reached at email@example.com.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.