Instagram’s hashtag #Blackmensmiling beams with the faces of Black men in spite of a world against us. The demand to smile is implicit when entering public spaces to make White people feel safe and unthreatened. Not doing so jeopardizes our safety resulting in police calls — solely out of anxiety and fear — , aggression, denial of service, racial profiling, or even job termination. Forced contortion of our faces to accommodate White anxiety is White supremacy.
Sometimes I retain my smile in protest for all the times it has been unjustly stolen rendering me powerless in self-expression. What’s in a disingenuous empty smile? Smiling like a Cheshire Cat won’t destigmatize me as threatening. A big toothy grin won’t reprogram sociobiological responses equating us to spiders and snakes. No smile will make me equal to you. We are entitled to express a gamut of emotions without castigation, and yes this includes anger. We are no longer Le Nègre Joyeux, forced to dance. We owe you nothing.
White people must now smile for us
Smile to make us comfortable around you. Granting us cultural membership doesn’t pose a threat to your survival, yet hegemonies continue to kill and marginalize minorities. White terrorism is most prolific. Who is to say you won’t choose upon whim to enslave (again), lynch, murder, rape, steal, plague, falsely accuse/imprison/execute, deny jobs and opportunities, or fire us at anytime?
Smile. Let me pretend to feel a part not apart. Give me a taste of being on the in-group team, valued, equal and wholly human. Sirens and blue lights riddled me with fear when driving. Running up to my car with guns pointed at my head left me too scared to drive again (thank you Chicago Police Department!). My heart will always jump worldwide when I see police; I cross the street now, just like you when you see me at night. Please smile next time though.
Smile when I shop your store or visit your establishment. Shouting, “Can I help you?” before my foot is even in the door signals difference, aversion to my presence and not belonging. Don’t follow us either; over attention and racial profiling is racist. I bring you new hard-earned black dollars, not old money legacy wealth. See, I am not the anxiety inducing threat your family and society/TV have socially conditioned you to believe.
Smile at work. I am the valueless token, who you fiddle with in your pocket, and only tolerate to fill cracks in your deeply institutionally racist facade. Tokenism is white supremacy. Smile, I am alone in a company who refuses to learn my cultural repertoire forcing me to code switch imprisoned in institutionalized racism. Smile, I am the unrelatable disgruntled coworker you ignore at meetings, and no one says “Hello” to upon entering the room.
Smile, it’s okay to sit next to me on the train. Don’t get up; I bid you no harm, just traveling like you. Patting for your wallet or clutching/moving your purse means I’m a thief. Stop that. Also, say “excuse me” when in my way. Don’t expect me to go around you. Space is equally mine; excuse yourself for attempting to physically marginalize me in addition to your continued sociological depravity.
My smile is a gift
I share my smile by choice. You are not entitled to it. It is powerful. It is a privilege to be earned. It is a gift. My smile is a temporary silent grant of trust to you for my physical and emotional safety, not a circus trick to be performed at your beckoning. Take care of it. When you see it, a mask gnarled by racism, micro-aggressions, a lifetime of daily assaults on dignity, and a history of involuntary servitude is cautiously grinning back at you. Be blessed.
Who should be smiling now?
This article was in part inspired by a recent denial of service by Richard Anderson at the pharmacy on Koppenplatz 13–14, 10115 in Berlin Germany. Because I did not smile and had my headphones on, he perceived me as “unfriendly” and snatched my prescription. Upon correction, he refused to fill my prescription.
Noted conductor, educator and social justice advocate Brandon Keith Brown seeks to engineer society from the podium by decreasing the racial stigmatization of underrepresented minority classical musicians. Brown is a prizewinner and the audience favorite of the 2012 International Sir Georg Solti Competition for Conductors, and guest conducts prominent European orchestras including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester-Berlin, Badisches Staatskapelle, Staatskapelle Weimar, members of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Jena Philharmonie among others. Upcoming debuts include the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin, WDR Funkhaus Orchestra Köln and the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra. He is a student of David Zinman, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur and Gustav Meier. Initially trained as a violinist, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music studying under Roland and Almita Vamos.
For more information and speaking request: www.brandonkeithbrown.com