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Tyler Mitchell

Two beautiful responses to this week’s police killings

Filmmaker Tyler Mitchell and photographer Emmanuel Olunkwa lay down their feelings for Dazed

It’s been a tragic week, with the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile resonating around the world. How can this still be happening? Why haven’t we stopped this? Castile was the 123rd black person to be shot by police in 2016. In response, we asked Tyler Mitchell and Emmanuel Olunkwa – two black artists close to Dazed – to write their thoughts for us. Here they are.

TYLER MITCHELL

I grew up angsty, with the cops on my mind, and the world’s standards of black masculinity keeping me on the fritz. These are unavoidable truths coming from a lanky black boy who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia — the metropolis of the south. In high school I felt micro-aggressions all around me but didn't know how to explain them. At times I didn’t like myself. I would explain to my parents how urgent it was to go to a boarding school in Scotland (thinking I needed a place far from home, where they still spoke English, but had no history of colonization). I would lash out in Facebook comments like a true Post-Odd-Future kid.

There is a sadly sinking ship called the black male psyche. I can tell you that we have been on edge since the beginning. I can tell you how my mom wouldn’t let me out the house wearing a hoodie or if my pants were sagging and no belt to hold them up. She shouldn’t ever have to feel that way. She shouldn’t ever have to go on diatribes explaining how to courteously address cops when spoken to. She shouldn’t have to call me after I’m chosen for the Dazed 100 to remind me that if I drop out “they” still have a reason to reject me. This cycle of self censorship and fear has existed way before I was born because the greatest source of fear is fear itself.

Making images gave me a way out of this frantic and toxic state of mind. Wish This Was Real is a film I directed at the end of 2015. Without angst, without speaking, without explanation, the film created a world that I wish existed but also wanted to remind you it sadly doesn't. We see 4 black boys playing with water guns amidst a washy purple gradient. We see them playing with toy cars as a group. I’m reaching for a fictionalized reality for black men, one of brotherhood, fun, and being carefree. However when the boys are alone, we see them trapped and struggling. We see the sad truths of the black man's schizophrenic reality. Making art became my response and coping mechanism to world events. Wish This Was Real became a state of mind that I put all of my recent work under and will continue to do so as long as I live. I often think about what “white fun” looks like and this notion that black people “can’t” do the same. We can’t hang out the window of a Jeep Wrangler at 1 in the morning. We can’t just live. We can’t be afforded the same opportunities. Then I make the images in which we are. I show us in the middle of color. I show us in the middle of yellows, oranges, and pinks. I show us in the middle of sneaking onto football fields and enjoying our lives. Only because I know we will be.

EMMANUEL OLUNKWA

Being black is a full-time job. This is not a cry or a plea. This is not an attempt to get you to understand what it means to be me or to exist as a person of color in a society that is driven by discrimination and racism, because no matter how many diary entries I share with you or how many people you watch die on the internet, you’ll never understand what it means to live under a magnifying glass and subjected to racial profiling, but just because you don’t understand the tragedy of the situation does not mean you can’t contribute or aid the movement.

This is not about how many likes you will get if you post or advocate for #blacklivesmatter on your various social media accounts. We are more than a hashtag, much more than these violent videos being spread across these same platforms. I am not Philando Castile nor am I Alton Sterling, but I could be. The police could catch me on one of the days when I am not so great, a day where I have had enough, a day when they need to meet a quota.

We are continually fed the same narrative. Black man or woman with x-record commits a crime or poses as a threat and in turn the police act accordingly (insert his or her mugshot from a previous misdemeanor here). Racial profiling is how America thrives; this is the way it was built, on the backs of people of color. This is how it maintains itself.

Existing passively as a white person is easy, if not recommended. Post a photo and add a hashtag and suddenly you are a social justice warrior. The same people who are the first to advocate are often the last ones to show up to the rallies and the meetings and the vigils, instead continually ‘disrupting’ the system for their own gain in the attention economy as opposed to actually bringing about change by acting themselves.

I have been conditioned to be silent, to keep my hands visible at all times and speak slowly and respectfully. I was taught how to present myself, to make my body language legible, to stay small and nonthreatening and despite having learned how to perform and police my body to stay alive I am constantly made either hyper-visible or invisible. I can die at the hands of someone’s lack of understanding or carelessness.  

Our bodies have been demonized and criminalized. We have been deemed less-than in a society that praises and celebrates our culture only when it is draped awkwardly over white bodies.

We demand change but few of you are willing to act. We are fed the same narrative at the expense of the continuous loss of black life. The media and some people proclaim, “They should have done this, should have known this, could have done that, acted like this, been home fathering, mothering their children,” but our bodies should not be read as a threat. We must unite, demand, and we will prosper. Change is a product of action not advocacy.