Over the past several weeks, superstar comedian Chris Rock has been posting a selfie on Instagram every time he’s been pulled over by the cops. In less than two months, Rock has made three of these posts, with the latest coming this past Monday. “Stopped by the cops again wish me luck,” he captioned with the newest selfie. He hasn’t given the specifics regarding the three instances (which occurred on February 13, February 27, and March 30), but Rock’s always been deliberate in speaking out about racial issues, and the star’s comments over the last several months have been fairly candid in regards to the current racial climate in the country. Rock has also examined what it means to be rich, black, and famous in America.
“Bill Murray in Lost in Translation is what Bryant Gumbel experiences every day,” Rock told New York Magazine back in December. “Or Al Roker. Rich black guys. It’s a little off.”
His posting of selfies every time he’s pulled over by the cops is another indicator of how racial profiling isn’t negated by wealth and fame.
Superstar Jamie Foxx, in an interview with Rolling Out magazine, related his own recent history with police and was honest about the anxiety he feels. “Me being an African American entertainer—[I] still get nervous when the cops pull me over,” he explained. “I got stopped a few weeks ago. I’m driving in my neighborhood, which is predominantly white. And I’m feeling white—I got my top down and my Rolls-Royce like, ‘Wow, this is a great, white day!’ With my boy… we’re riding down 101 in L.A., chilling [on a] Sunday. All of a sudden, the cops get behind me. And I’m like, ‘OK, the cops are behind me, but it’s a great day and I’m really mainstream.’ But he turns his lights on and I’m thinking, ‘It couldn’t be me.’ And I actually move over and say, ‘Yeah, go get ‘em! Go get those guys’ and he was like, ‘It’s you—pull it over!’ and when he yelled at me, he yelled like I was crazy. He talked to me like I wasn’t human.”
The tensions that have existed for generations between police and the black community are very real and born of fear and mistrust. The police have long operated as occupying forces in hostile territory—from the ways in which cops interact with black citizens to the rates of cops killing blacks compared to whites. That anxiety that stars like Rock and Foxx and countless others feel is shared by the average black person on the street—the average black person who doesn’t have hit movies or TV shows. That these stars are affected by it shouldn’t give validation to the protests of black folks; it should only amplify them.
But actor Isaiah Washington offered a different take on the problem of racial profiling.
The famously outspoken star of Grey’s Anatomy fame has been fairly vocal in his opinions on race issues over the years, and when Rock posted this most recent cop-stop selfie, Washington offered the funnyman some “advice.”
Of course, there has been no shortage of victim-blaming and “advice” to black people in how to deal with the racism of police officers. But Washington’s suggestion that the solution is to “adapt” to racism is just foolish and dangerous. You shouldn’t suggest black boys buy some suspenders to hold their pants up around cops; and you shouldn’t suggest that black celebs buy corny vehicles to curb racial profiling. The problem is racism. That racism is fluid and malleable; it changes to whatever becomes associated with black people. If driving a Prius became common for black people, then racist cops would start pulling over black people driving those cars. The onus is not on black people to adapt to oppression. To suggest that it’s a viable option is to enable that oppression.
And Washington is too full of righteous indignation to be so aloof about issues such as this.
When he was infamously fired from Grey’s back in 2007 after making a homophobic remark to a castmate and the fallout that ensued, he was quick to paint himself as a black man unwilling to be bowed or broken. “Well, it didn’t help me on the set that I was a black man who wasn’t a mush-mouth Negro walking around with his head in his hands all the time. I didn’t speak like I’d just left the plantation and that can be a problem for people,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “I had a person in human resources tell me after this thing played out that ‘some people’ were afraid of me around the studio. I asked her why, because I’m a 6-foot-1 black man with dark skin and who doesn’t go around saying ‘Yessah, massa sir’ and ‘No sir, massa’ to everyone? It’s nuts when your presence alone can just scare people, and that made me a prime candidate to take the heat in a dysfunctional family.”
You were right, 2007-era Isaiah Washington—it was nuts that just your presence scared people. It’s even more nuts that 2015 Isaiah Washington thinks that the way to handle that is to make yourself more accommodating to their prejudices.
Washington’s since sat down for an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon. This has become fairly rote as of late—black celebrities telling black people what they have to change about themselves in order to quell racial unrest. “Yes, the onus is on us,” Washington told Lemon, essentially doubling down on his tweet. It echoes Pharrell’s comments to Oprah about how “The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues.”
The outspoken ex-Grey’s star is also promoting his upcoming movie Blackbird, about a teen in Mississippi coming to grips with the fact that he’s gay. In Washington’s memoir, A Man From Another Land, he used modern technology to trace his lineage back to Sierra Leone; and he co-produced and appeared in Bound, a documentary by Kenyan filmmaker Peres Owino.
In having such a passion for cultural awareness, Washington should realize that “advising” black people to contort themselves into all manner of positions to navigate the murky waters of American racism is not the answer. Chris Rock or anyone else who wants to drive a nice car deserves that freedom. For the entirety of our existence in the Western world, black people have had to alter who they are for the sake of appeasing white standards or diminishing the racism that has been visited upon us. From hair chemicals to European names, part of our culture has been defined by making those kinds of “adjustments,” only to find ourselves continuously marginalized and terrorized. We’ve all heard that song, Mr. Washington. It’s past time to sing another one. We can’t continue to hop from one foot to the other in the hopes that someone will recognize our humanity; and we can’t be willing to forgo our freedom for the sake of false peace. A line has been drawn in the sand, culturally. It’s time for a different mindset.
Because racism is something that black people have had to adapt to for far too long.