There was a shooting the other night close enough to campus that I received an email about it. As I read the report, I found myself bracing to read the description of the suspect. Since I was a child, I’ve known that it is bad for all black people when a crime is committed by one black person. “Please don’t let them be black” is a thought I’m accustomed to. In times when the criminal turns out to be Latinx, I still feel momentary relief, though it is followed by sympathy for their community. Ideally every crime story on the news would have a white suspect, but of course, watching an armed white man be taken into custody alive and unbloodied is its own burden.
Back to the email. There are not a lot of black or Latinx people in Hawaii. Here, the main marginalized groups are Native Hawaiians, Filipinos, and Samoans. So I found myself hoping for their sake that they would not “fit the description.” Below is what the email said.
The male suspect is described by witnesses as:
– Height: 5″6″
– Weight: 130-140 pounds
– Build: slim
– Hair: short, spiky
– Eyes: brown
– Facial hair: goatee
– Clothing: light colored shorts, gray hoodie
– Other: tattoo on stomach
I must have read it three times on my phone. Race and ethnicity weren’t even mentioned. I tried to figure out did the witnesses not know? The main dominant groups here are Chinese, Japanese, and white; maybe when it’s not simply white vs POC, witnesses don’t get strong impressions of the suspect being from an oppressed minority.
For some reason the “short, spiky” hair stood out to me. No hair color. I imagine it’s hard to know someone’s hair is spiky without knowing whether the hair is also blond or pink or black. I see no reason why the police would have withheld this detail from the email, so I’m figuring that the witnesses actually described the suspect as having “short, spiky hair” and the police officer nodded and wrote it down and moved on to the other characteristics.
As part of me was making guesses as to the ethnicities of everyone involved, it also occurred to me that maybe this is what it’s like to live in a place where crime is not thought to be linked to race. Don’t get me wrong, Native Hawaiians (and probably the other marginalized groups, though I haven’t checked) are disproportionately incarcerated here (and disproportionately likely to be sent to prison on the other side of the mainland where they have no support and can’t get family visits). I’m not claiming it’s better to be oppressed in Hawaii than on the mainland. Oppression is oppression. Land theft is land theft. But it is interesting to me to see how my own thoughts have been affected by my experiences, and also to feel how unnecessary that burden is. The way crime has been linked to race actually requires constant reinforcement. We tell ourselves that certain attitudes simply “persist” from historical times when things were much worse. But they don’t persist unaided. They persist because methods of reinforcement are built into our systems.
We don’t have to believe in “black crime.” We don’t have to use POC as our go-to criminals or make rap music the go-to background music for criminal activity in our entertainment. We don’t have to distance ourselves from those we suspect of committing a crime.
It seems to me the witnesses did not describe hair color because they didn’t think of it, because they didn’t feel a need to. It’s probably just that they and also the police think of most people as having dark hair. It’s still startling to me to read a description of a suspect who is probably not white where the report itself does not feed into or remind me of racism.
Also, I’m not on facebook, so I’ll probably be lowering my standards for what gets put here… just sayin…