‘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.
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!