To Business Establishments,
Throughout my life, hotels, restaurants, stores, gated communities and establishments just like yours have repeatedly questioned me.
“Do you live here? Why are you here? Do you have I.D.?”
People at these businesses are constantly questioning whether or not I, along with other black people, belong.
This idea of asking for proof about whether or not we belong goes back to slavery. Black people who weren’t slaves were required to get certification from the courts, known as freedom papers, to carry on them and prove their status. There was a lack of respect.
Today, black people continue to fight to be treated with dignity. Salespeople follow me in stores. Security guards perk up when they see me. Women clench their purses when I walk by them.
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What is even more troubling is seeing my 14-year-old son beginning to get the same treatment.
He keeps asking me, “Why?”
It’s a gut-wrenching question for a parent to answer, as the root of the problem is so deep and systemic. That’s why instead of just talking to my son, I am now speaking directly to all of you – people who run and own various businesses.
At five years old, growing up in Ferguson, Missouri, I already could see the problem. I remember driving in the car with my mother and my siblings. We got pulled over and I am not even sure why. It was probably for going 26 mph in a 25 mph speed zone or something as equally insignificant. They made us all get out of the car and stand on the side of the road. While I may not have had the words to define it, I knew how we were treated was wrong.
From a young age, my mother, a minister and my father, a pastor, had many conversations with me about racism. For black families in America, talking about racism with our children is not an optional conversation. It’s an essential one.
My dad told me, “As a black child, you’re going to have to be ten times better. You’re going to have to be faster. You’re going to have to be smarter. You’re going to have to be squeaky clean because you have to present yourself in a way that is the furthest from guilty. That’s because no matter how good you are, no matter how far you travel, no matter where you go in your career, you’re still black and you’ll always be presumed guilty.”
To make it out of Ferguson and make it in life as a black man, my father, a Boy Scout troopmaster, emphasized good character. He repeatedly told me to do my best, which was the Cub Scout motto. He also told me to be prepared, which was the Boy Scout motto.
I listened to him. As a kid, I practiced my trumpet eight hours a day. My dad told me my talent would be a great leveler and my mom said that one day I would play in front of kings and queens. Even as a kid, my talent gave me unusual opportunities, including attending events and performing in front of social activist and civil rights leader, Julian Bond.
As time went on, I left Missouri and continued music. I have been a part of many projects that have won Grammys and I’ve worked with some of the greatest artists of our generation, including Maxwell, Jay-Z, Gregory Porter, PJ Morton and the Miles Davis estate.
Despite my success, when I walked into a hotel lobby in Soho (New York City) on December 26th, the day after Christmas, I, along with my son, was still black.
A 22-year-old woman lost her phone and accused my son of stealing it. We were guests at the hotel. There was no video footage evidence or witnesses. There was no reason at all to think my son had her phone. And yet, instead of protecting us or defending us, the hotel manager did what most establishments have historically done to black people. He questioned us. Asking to see my son’s phone not only validated her unwarranted accusations, it challenged whether or not we belonged.
When I defended my son, I tried to be reasonable, knowing that I’d end up in jail if I didn’t remain calm. We even attempted to walk away from the situation – not even that was enough.
This woman physically and criminally attacked my son.
While the woman found her phone shortly after, the damage was already done. No one stole her phone, but she and the hotel manager unfairly robbed my son of his innocence.
We were lucky we had cameras that told our story. As a black man or child, I know how a false accusation can destroy someone’s life, or even worse, end it altogether.
The pattern is evident in this country. At 14, the same age as my son, two white men brutally murdered Emmet Till because a white woman falsely accused him of hitting on her. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, was shot dead on a playground because a police officer wrongly thought he had a gun.
There is so much trauma for black people. Every day I wear an extra layer of clothing that’s invisible. It is a layer of protection that reminds me I’ve got to be ready for anything. On December 26th, I was just trying to go to brunch and spend time with my son. My son didn’t deserve to be profiled, harassed and assaulted.
My son is an amazing and resilient kid. He produces and writes music and plays the bass and the drums. A few weeks ago, he moderated a panel with 50 of his peers, discussing social justice. He volunteers in his community and recently, he told me he is an activist, as he now wants to speak up about inequality.
I am proud of my son, as he is doing his best while preparing for life.
Now, I need you to step up and put in that same effort. I need you to begin to do your best and be prepared to end racism and racial profiling in your businesses.
If you haven’t already, start hiring people of color in management and executive positions. Train your employees to understand racial profiling and implicit bias. This way, they can recognize it when it happens and instead of empowering a racist, they can de-escalate a situation.
When your company is wrong, show accountability and take responsibility.
This problem is so much bigger than my son, me or one hotel. We are living in a system built to hold us back and hurt us. But more change can happen if you stop questioning black people and start respecting us.
When my son asks me, “Why? Why did she think I stole her phone? Why do things like this happen?” I have to tell him about the deep-rooted hate that some people feel towards him simply because he is black.
However, I also tell my son whether he is wearing a three-piece suit or a hoodie, sweats and headphones, he deserves to be treated well. He is worthy of going wherever he wants to go.
I tell my son that he BELONGS.
Now, my question for you is, will you do what’s right and make sure he, along with all black people, always feels welcome?