Fear of a (Loud!) Black Voice
On April 3, 2023, Tennessee lawmakers voted to expel two of its Black lawmakers because they raised their voices on the house floor while protesting for tighter gun control after another tragic school shooting that took the life of children. The official reason was “disorderly behavior.” And “bringing disorder and dishonor to the House.” A third lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, a white female who participated in the protest, was not suspended. She attributed this curious decision to the color of her skin. A Republican representative (Rep. Lowell Russell) said the reason Rep. Gloria Johnson was not suspended because she “did not participate to the extent Justin Jones and Justin Pearson did.” What does that mean? Jones and Pearson were Black men talking loudly. That is something that angers white people.
I know the dangers of talking too loudly around white people. I’m 6’4, black, bearded, and bald. I look like thousands of other black men. I fit the template of being feared. When I raise my voice, white people get upset. They are upset enough to use guns to contain me if they perceive me stepping out of line. I am subject to being killed by doing the most mundane things, such as jogging, walking home from the store, or even accidentally knocking on the wrong door.
I have to look after myself. Many of these white people say they fear me. They carry guns, and I don’t. I can get killed if I even look at them the wrong way. Some may think this is hyperbole. I am not speaking about what I read but about my experience.
As a JV basketball coach for a local high school, I acquired the reputation that I was a man on the edge of a cosmic breakdown. I was loud! I screamed out play calls to my players, and my voice was loud and booming. One parent wrote (anonymously, of course) that Coach Russell “frightens adults and scares children.” And that when I stomp on the floor, “the entire basketball seating stand shakes.” And they also added that they overheard me instruct my players to injure the opposing team’s players. My reputation at Falcon High School was awful. Even some of the coaches asked me to calm down and not to scream so much.
However, at the end of the season banquette, I pointed out to all of the coaches and parents I was the only coach at our school, from freshman to varsity, for boys’ and girls’ teams, to have not had one technical foul called against me the entire two seasons I coached there. Parents and coaches were surprised and had to think about what I had just said. If I was the wild and screaming, out-of-control coach I was made out to be, why did the other couches receive several technical foul calls, and I did not receive one? It all has to do with my physical attributes that this false narrative was hung around my neck.
I’m big, black, bearded, and bald. People are afraid of me, even though I, and those close to me, know that I would not harm a roach. Well, maybe. But the point is, in the Black world, I am just another brother going about my business, and I am not considered intimidating at all. But when I walk into the White world, I know what happens if I raise my voice. After they get to know me a little, many white people become comfortable enough to tell me how I intimidated them when they first met me. I got that from students, parents, and other teachers. When I ask them why I frightened them, one of the first things they say is my voice, followed by my size, and some even mention my snow-white beard.
This is not a minor problem. I’ve been stopped and approached by cops, and I can sense their nervousness by golly. I can feel it, and that’s when I know that just a routine stop can turn into a deadly event because of the cop’s fear and, at the same time, their need to let me know that they are in charge, as they sometimes nervously go about their business. During one traffic stop, a cop put his finger an inch from my face and told me not to raise my voice, even though I was using what I considered a normal voice and tone.
White fear is why Trayvon died, and his killer got away because the jury related to being afraid of black boys and men. That trial’s outcome justified a white man approaching and killing a Black teenager that did not commit any crime other than trying to protect himself from an armed white man who stalked and murdered him. But when Zimmerman got off free, this was a not too subtle a symbol that told White America that their fear of Black people was justified, and a jury of their peers will understand and sympathize with that fear. White fear, mixed with hate sometimes and ignorance all the time, has put Black fathers, sons, and brothers in the crosshairs of gun-toting white men as the “Stand Your Ground” laws are spreading throughout the United States, putting us in danger and protecting violent racists at the same time.
Many years ago, I watched the movie The Green Mile. My white co-workers recommended this movie. I thought it was a stupid movie. My white friends were shocked that I thought it was a shit movie. But I explained to them that if I had that power, the last place that I would be is in any jail, even if I was guilty, let alone innocent like King’s character. Most white people like Blacks to smile often, especially if they are big, like me. If I don’t smile, I am asked what is wrong. Like Stephen King’s John Coffey character, they want Black men to be smiling, happy, and friendly. They want Black men to be like those television commercials, singing, laughing, and dancing in Popeye Chicken restaurants. At the same time, they are creepingly overjoyed to be frying chicken for a minimum wage.
In my present position, I attended a meeting and raised my voice at a co-worker, a white female, and I was highly criticized because of it. I did not threaten, I did not call anyone out their name, I did not use profanity, I raised my voice, and it stopped a meeting. I’ve attended meetings where voices were sometimes raised, but when I did it, people became upset. White people want to domesticate what they consider the monster, turning something they fear into a friendly, docile being whose only consideration will be to appease white people by being soft-spoken and non-intimidating. We cannot change the physical attributes that make white people fear us, but a broad smile on our faces will do wonders to make them feel safe.
The reason Charles Barkley gets away with being outspoken (even though he’s rarely correct) is because of the flip side of his outspokenness; Charles Barkley is a Black man in a clown suit, who is so outrageous that his occasional visit to the BLM platform is wholly forgiven by white people who do not consider him a threat or take him seriously. That is the way Barkley can get away with being “outspoken.” If Charles Barkley’s outspokenness were not followed by a smile or a joke to add levity, he would be considered disorderly and un-American.
If those Black representatives had been grinning and joking while protesting on the House floor, they might not have been suspended. According to Republicans, Black men can say that America has to do a better job of controlling gun violence or that a woman has to be the master of her own body. Still, it better be followed by a joke, a smile, or a compliment about a white colleague to prove that they are not entirely into the BLM movement and the violence it represents.
We should not be surprised that young Black men raising their voices upsets many white people, who consider these young and loud men an existential threat to their grip on power. But it is surprising and upsetting that as I write this, laws are going up all over America that will make it easier for racists to kill people like me. Because of their fear, the Stand Your Ground laws are being extended to all public areas as more people are allowed to carry weapons concealed and open. Because of the innate fear of the Black voice, the next time a Black man is in a Walmart, he may need to adjust his decimal level.