Inside the Mind of a Racially Profiled Black Person: The Story that Pulled me out of Complacency

Nini Mappo
Posted December 30, 2020 from Kenya
My friend Lankeu, safe and carefree in the Kenyan savannah — no racism here. (1/1)

 

‘The injustice that is racial profiling leaves the victim feeling unsafe and vulnerable,’ I thought, recalling my friend Lankeu’s recount of fear, helplessness, and the urge to run, although he knew he was innocent. Entranced by the intensity of these emotions, I stared through a blur of fluorescent colors in my son’s hands, into the hostile eyes of a police officer outside a Meijer store in Michigan.  

Outside the store was Lankeu Muteleu, a Kenyan American friend who, on the night of Saturday 22nd of August, had a terrifying encounter with police. Suspected of shop-lifting a cartful of groceries at Meijer, an employee called the police. They intercepted Lankeu as he exited the store and barred his way.  

Lankeu recounted the encounter: ‘As I walked out of Meijer Ann Arbor-Saline Road, Chil, a Meijer employee escorted by 2 cops ran up in front of me and said, “Sir, you did not pay for these. My system didn’t show any of these items. Can you show me your receipt?"

Trembling, I pulled out my phone to display my Shipt prepaid order receipt. It had been verified by another Meijer employee manning the checkout kiosks. On seeing my receipt, Chil mumbled a semblance of an apology, said there might have been a system glitch, and retreated into the store with the police.’

 

This scenario is sobering for me because I know Lankeu as my Kenyan friend. Didn't they know he's Kenyan? What’s he doing getting racially profiled in America? I have in the past felt disconnected from anti-Black racism as a problem out there. Why invest my energies into it? But now my mind is replete with fearful grief for my friend and all Americans of color experiencing racial profiling and discrimination.

When Lankeu stepped out of Meijer and saw two police cars parked where he’d not left them, the gravity of what had just happened, and the likely repercussions, hit hard. Cops had been called on him. Him!

He explained: ‘I know of countless such scenarios and how they’ve played out all over the country. Cops are called on a Black man for the most mundane of things and, quickly, one thing leads to another. So, we have instances where police interactions with black men have turned out fatal. Saturday night could’ve been me.’

It was a frightening five minutes of Lankeu’s life that thrust him into the fight or flight mode that kicks in, in others like him, who’ve been racially profiled. It was frightening because only three months prior, on the 25th of May when the same thing happened to George Floyd, he didn’t make it home. But his martyrdom had changed nothing of how some white business owners handle the presence of Black men in retail spaces, raising many questions in Lankeu’s mind.

Lankeu’s questions

1). Why are some Americans so set in their anti-Black mentality?

2). Why do some Americans think that the answer to everything, including a groceries’ receipt, is the police?

3). Doesn’t Meijer know how prepaid orders work, or are Meijer prepaid orders racially-biased too, declining to work for people of African descent?

4). Why didn’t the Meijer staff manning the computers and cameras page the other employees at pay kiosks to verify my purchase, and instead used the time I bagged my groceries to call the cops on me?

5). How do I restore my sense of safety as I mix with possibly racist people every day?

 

Ironically, Lankeu works for the US Federal Government in public policy.

 

Racial discrimination and fight or flight response

According to this NCBI article examining discrimination and its psychological risk factors, researchers found that being chronically on the receiving end of interpersonal racism elevates risk for fear, hyperarousal, and tension — three responses also known as fight or flight response.

Very well mind defines flight or fight response as a reflexive impulse that begins when, on sensing danger, the brain sets off an alarm throughout the central nervous system. This alarm prompts the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, two ‘defense’ hormones which place the body on high alert to either confront the threat (‘fight’) or leave as quickly as possible (‘flight’).

To illustrate, when most people see a snake slithering towards them they don’t plan an escape route. Instantaneously, the fight or flight response kicks in so that they jump, scream, throw something at it if they dare, or run. They will not have thought of those actions in sequence.

 

A fear-filled brain is reasoning and planning disabled — nerves are in charge.

 

To always be on high alert, scanning your surroundings and beyond, looking over your shoulder, is to nurse a relentless din of ‘I may not be safe. I am not safe. I can’t just relax’. It is where many victims of racial profiling might be. It is certainly where Lankeu found himself and is for him, exhausting.

Until August 2020, Lankeu was a regular American immigrant, fresh citizen, mostly Kenyan, increasingly American, going about his daily business of living. He has unfortunately joined the scores of Americans of color walking with a quickened pace, looking over their shoulders or combing their surroundings for police presence. 

 They have done nothing wrong. They aren’t doing anything wrong. What they fear is having to relive the trauma of a police encounter. They fear being in that moment, in case they run short of words to explain their lawful, peaceful existence in public spaces. Victims of racial profiling are in this ‘high-alert’ fight or flight mode because unexpected police presence could swiftly transform their safest spaces, into death traps.   

Meijer, a safe peaceful store, became such a death trap for Lankeu. Here, his sense of safety died. His carefree days ended. His mental health suffered. His American optimism faded. But he will keep going until he dies, and only hopes to die a just death.

 

Possible effects of racial discrimination on mental health

Lankeu’s trauma is still fresh, and it isn’t replay. It is the wondering of why he feels thankful to not have been harmed, that these cops were reasonable and his life was spared. He revolts that sense of awe that he could go home to his wife and son. He’s angry that a simple grocery shopping trip turned into anxiety that he’s still trying to shake off, weeks later.

He also feels robbed because shopping — once an enjoyable and relaxing experience — is now a life stressor.

 

According to Harvard Health, chronic low-level stress is to the body much like a motor idling too high for too long. It drains the body of energy and sets it up for ill-health. For Lankeu, this stress — presenting in bouts of whirling thoughts, overwhelm, anxiety, and blank spells — is exhausting. It is chipping away at his mental health, but he has not resigned himself to it.  

Lankeu hopes that with time Meijer will regain its feel of the safe, family-friendly space it has been for him for years. He doesn’t know how long that will take, but he doesn’t want fear to have the last word either. So, he’s working on it.

 

Using personal identity to cope with the trauma of racial discrimination

Since his police encounter, Lankeu’s identity has become an important weapon against the trauma of racism. Before leaving his home for errands, he will engage in his self-affirmation ritual as armor against fear and anxiety.

He is a black man, a law-abiding American, a husband, and father, a valued employee of the American federal government, contributing to his community with integrity and purpose. Racists cannot see that, but he believes he must remember it because the alternative is fear.  

Lankeu muses on how he’d never really thought about who he was until that moment of paralyzing fear while looking those police officers in the eyes as if to say: ‘This is who I am, can’t you see?’ He had been just a guy, but must now take continuous inventory of who he is lest the fear takes over, then darkness.

 

On the times when anxiety pounds hard in public spaces, Lankeu mentally retreats to his expansive Maasai homeland in the Kenyan Savannah. There, he is free to run, to roam. He is a son, a fearless warrior, the pride of his tribe. While in this space, there is no room in his mind to host traumatic thoughts.

“It isn’t pushing against Americanism,” He told me. “It’s holding on to who I am, so I can thrive where I might otherwise be afraid.”

While I admire Lankeu's fortitude, it's a pity that it was prompted by racial discrimination. And yet, it is what it is, for now.

 

                                    _________________________________________________________________________

 

This story is already  3 months old. But I share it now because as I reflect on 2020 and my very short writing journey starting in May, this is my story of the year. Learning of my friend's incident of being racially profiled shook me, and I immersed myself into his ordeal, and what he must have felt to write his story  and shake myself out of complacency and apathy. 

There is little overt anti-Black racism in my multi-cultural city, and, consequently,  racism was never my problem. Honestly, until cops were called on my friend, part of me often dismissed reports of racism as overreacting or even misreading a situation. Yes, I am quite disappointed with myself for such an attitude. This story changed my life. 

Reading Lankeu's post recounting the fear we only read about in the news made me resolve to raise my voice about all kinds of injustices even when I cannot relate. I have stopped spectating, and joined the march for justice and freedom.

Adieu 2020, my year of being woke. Despite all the troubles you brought, you taught me so much!

This story was submitted in response to Human Rights for All.

Comments 11

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Adriana Leigh G.
Dec 30, 2020
Dec 30, 2020

Nini, I sit with Maya on the couch, tears of recognition and gratitude for you, and your truth - spoken with such painful beauty here. I am so sorry for what your friend Lankeu experienced, and continues to experience, and the pain it brought for you. While I hear pain, I hear new depth that comes in this post.

There is almost too much in here for me to quote, my dear Nini. But this runs so deep and provokes important reflection: "I have in the past felt disconnected from anti-Black racism as a problem out there." You sing a song of pain many of us may experience, in very different ways, a disconnection, a blocking out of this issue of police brutality as we may not experience it in our daily lives. Through your truth and these words, there is a level of new connection I see, and others will see to this issue.

What resonated deeply are the series of questions Lankeu asked himself, and now I and all of us can sit with. These would be great questions for us for a World Pulse call -- these questions themselves are an opening. I believe they can be an opening for some new folks to understand police brutality against black men specifically on a new level, at least they brought this up for me. I know for me as a white woman in Canada, this brought a new level of understanding the layers of trauma Lankeu experienced, and his resilience in dealing with the trauma through affirmations just hit deep in the heart.

Despite this experience, he is doing whatever he can to restore his sense of safety even as he continues to mix with racist behaviour every day. I hear you, and I see your transformation Nini, your new year is starting. I hear deep action, I hear truth. I see you, I learn with you. I am in solidarity with you here in Montreal Nini,
Hugs!!
Adriana

Nini Mappo
Jan 11
Jan 11

Hello Maya, Hello Adriana :)
Thank you for finding gems here to expound your awareness, to dive deeper into the complexity that is the question of colour and all the emotions it provokes. Thank you for raising it as a good topic for a World Pulse call. Would you have a clue how to go about that? I have only ever done one call and it seemed that the calls have skill-based workshops. Or maybe it's just the one I got into.
Thank you for always finding value, and for building on this story to see how others can be invited into the dialogue. I am dazzled by the sparkles coming at me from you :-)

Tamarack Verrall
Dec 30, 2020
Dec 30, 2020

Dear Nini,
I have sat with this since reading it some hours ago, and will be sitting with it. Your words bring understanding on a deeper level, and this is the gift you have given here. I will not forget this story. Life-threatening harm stays on, and transforms into nightmares that don't easily heal. Especially when the threat remains. I so hope that Lankou is healing and that we continue to find ways to transform awareness into action. By telling this story in the detail we need to understand, may it strengthen our determination and action to get rid of racism. We have a long way to go.
Deep sisterhood,
Tam

Nini Mappo
Jan 11
Jan 11

Thank you, dear mama Tam. Lankeu is feeling optimistic, as are most Americans with a new government that they hope will stem the flow of racism. Buts as you say, we do have a long way to go. It is disheartening, but we cannot be apathetic regardless of how much energy it takes.
Sending sisterhood love and hugs for the new year :) (In case I have not)

jomarieb.earth
Dec 30, 2020
Dec 30, 2020

Hey Nini,
I am truly sorry for Lankeu's experience. But I must say...welcome to our world, my beloved America. The timing of your story is timeless. It's not new, and there is no expiration date. As I have been trying to express repeatedly, this is America. Our beloved country. It became this way hundreds of years ago. And it has progressed/morphed into unenforced laws, updated technology and over saturated materialism. The racism roots are forever deep and cannot be pulled up. The new and better ideas and ideals are merely buds on the surface that thrive depending on the elements of the seasons. The more American Lankeu becomes, the more he will be aware that he is potentially subjected to what we are subjected to. He is African, but the police couldn't care less, nor anyone else for that matter. In Black Americans eyes we see Africans as...wait for it, here it comes, they'll find out soon enough. I'm so sorry that Lankeu found out at all. I am light skinned, and ambiguous to many, but I still have to mind my actions and surroundings. When I pick up an internet order at TARGET in Los Angeles, I see who is at the exit door. I hold my "PRINTED OUT" receipt, that I printed myself on 8"x10" paper, in full view for anyone in the area. I NEVER use the phone barcode because it's not visible 20 feet away. I talk to the counter attendant before I exit to make sure we are clear, finished and complete. If I want to walk around in the store after the transaction I put my printed receipt in the bag that was cleared, not into my pocket or purse. Simple, premeditated actions to hopefully prevent misunderstandings for us is a "way of life". White people have different treatment, a different point of view because they have a different experience. This is America. All people of color have to be mindful of how we carry ourselves. And the awareness and demeanor adjustments don't always work. Driving with police in the area means hands positions 10:00 & 2:00 on the wheel, eyes straight ahead, mouth shut (means no phone distraction). And hope they aren't scanning for simple infractions because there are quotas to meet and tally up as success of the day. All people of color must think twice, three times, scan and premeditate all day long. And I do mean ALL, all day long! This is not NEW. But it's an epiphany to anyone who thinks it's different for them if they have any melanin at all. Racism is the surprise that you will never forget. Never let your guard down, and at the very least you will see it coming. Again, my heart goes out to Lankeu, and welcome him to my country that I love.
Major, massive hugs to you and Lankeu...JoMarie

(Big ups & hugs to our sisters in Canada. Canada saved many Black people from the ravages of slavery. Canada was salvation when the Mason Dixon line separating north USA(freedom states) and south USA(slave states) was erased and the north USA became open for bounty hunters to hunt for slaves. Free Black people were caught in the mix. The freedom that the north offered to Blacks was no longer north USA states. North freedom became Canada.)

Nini Mappo
Jan 11
Jan 11

Dear Sis JoMarie,
Again, thank you for adding value, and context, and the Canadian role in the early years road to racial equality. Reading your shopping checklist is both disheartening and tiring:/ But it seems you have integrated it into your daily activities so much that you just do it, without much thought of missing out on the privilege of going shopping sans the multi-step process required to validate your purchases. It seems that there is so much to do to be black and safe in America. I am glad that you have a system in place although it'd be preferable that you didn't need one. Well, I suppose it is what it is, and we just keep pushing against the mountain in hope that with enough momentum, it will move, fall over, or by a miracle, be smashed by a meteorite!!

Sending you hugs and sparkles for the week ahead :)

valem
Dec 31, 2020
Dec 31, 2020

Hello dada Nini how are you and your family,
The story is touching one, The best way to get rid of racist thoughts, especially on the basis of race, is to fear God. The Scriptures say that we are all created in God's image.
Happy new Year.

Nini Mappo
Jan 11
Jan 11

Thank you, Valem. That is so true. If we recognized that we all have the same status before God as His image bearers then there would be no racism. But that is not the case unfortunately, which is quite tragic as in my friends case. May the good Lord keep His people safe.

Hello, dear Nini,

That is such a horrible experience, to be accused of theft simply because of skin color. As I read your story, I was afraid Lankeu couldn't produce any receipt (another glitch on his part) and what could have happened if it were so. In split seconds he got accused, and there wasn't time to tell them he is Kenyan. Thank you for continually speaking up about racism. I thought it was so 1960's, but sadly, it still exists today.

You are that emerging voice for the voiceless black colored people, dear Nini. As your children asked, why are you called black when your skin is brown? But God has prepared you for such a time as this to be the voice for those who lack words to articulate what you can do so easily and with eloquence.

Looking forward to witnessing your journey as one of the powerful voices of the "black" community, not just the black Americans, but the Africans as well.

You've been calling me Moses, but it is you who is Moses, leading the way to reclaim the stories of colored skins. It's about time to set the people free from racism, come hell or high water. Happy New Year, Nini Love!

Nini Mappo
Jan 11
Jan 11

Aww, thank you, KayeMoses ;) And yes, everyone should learn from my kids about race. They have no confusion and bias. I spoke in church once and a lady told me that I have such passion I need a platform for my voice. I am waiting for God to open the doors for that voice to reverberate into change, healing, nd freedoms for those He has assigned. Thank you for recognizing that, and for the encouragement :)
Hugs and smiles from Kaaronini ha ha ha

I believe that is your calling, dear Nini. "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”― Frederick Buechner

The destiny God has set for you is yours to live. Step up and lead because the world is waiting for the powerful message God placed in your heart that can only be spoken/written by you alone. Step up and believe that anointing, grace, and provision will be with you. I feel it in my Spirit that doors begin to open this year. Amen.

Hahaha. You are hilarious. That's new!