I Am Not a Threat
By Ima Mfon
While I’ve always spoken about my experiences through my work, I've often stopped short of saying how I really felt. From my imposter syndrome, which makes me feel unqualified to speak on subjects where my literal existence as a black man counts as relevant experience, to my fear of making my white friends and coworkers feel uncomfortable, to my desire to avoid being perceived as the angry black guy—there are many reasons why I have been reticent to share my true feelings. The older I get, the more I feel the urge to share, and the harder it is to hold back.
In the spirit of speaking my truth, I want to say more about how I created this image.
I shot a few variations of this image, but the one with the rose is special to me because I created what I couldn’t find in real life. The rose, unlike me, is universally accepted. Despite being sharp and prickly and having outward signals of danger, it is always seen as beautiful. In contrast to the rose, I’m not prickly, I don’t hurt anyone, and to the best of my ability I try to present as non-threatening yet I am almost always perceived as a threat.
I am what some might call a “big black guy”—6ft tall, 250-ish lbs and very dark-skinned. I know white (and sometimes Asian) people are afraid of me before they interact with me. I see it all the time. The woman in the elevator clutching her purse is a pretty standard occurrence for me. I once walked down a city block, about 10 paces behind a white woman who tried to fight the urge to assume I was following her, but after looking back at me for the fifth or sixth time, she panicked and ran for her life. Little did she know I was more scared of her whiteness than she was of my blackness; I just knew better than to make sudden moves in front of a white woman so changing my pace was out of the question. I’ve even had my close white friends get startled if I suddenly raise my voice in excitement, even if it's just to exclaim “I love this song!”. The fear of black men is always there, lingering in the background.
I’ve gotten pretty used to “disarming” myself and taking steps to present as a non-threat: I try to lower the bass in my voice. I avoid raising my voice at all costs even if it’s to express joy. I smile more often around white people than I normally would around black people and I preemptively mention my wife and always keep our wedding photo as my iPhone wallpaper, ready to show anyone who might wrongly assume I was trying to hit on them. The crazy thing is, I’m not the only one who does similar or even more extreme things to protect themselves from the negative image of the black man in America. Ask your black male friends about this and I guarantee you they will have some stories to share. Emmanuel Acho, the former NFL linebacker and current author and host of “Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man” on YouTube, recently said “I as a black man have to calculate every move I make the second I walk outside my house”. I couldn't agree more.
It is exhausting being perceived as aggressive, dangerous, violent or suspicious at all times, knowing that someone else is uneasy simply because you occupy the same space. This feeling of constantly being perceived as a threat often made me wish I could be seen like the rose, so I created an image that forces you to give the rose and the black man the same treatment. There is no looking at one without the other. For a brief moment in time, I gave us the ability to be loved and universally accepted.
It’s often said that you become what you behold. Unfortunately, black men don’t have a lot of aspirational figures or positive imagery to look up to in the media and broader society. This is why it is so important for artists to keep putting out those positive images. It would be great to see actual positive images like more black business leaders or elected political leaders, but, if history is any indicator, that will be a much slower process.
Art gives us the ability to create those narratives now. I choose to tell those stories through my photography. Art can help elevate the image of the black man, but it is not enough for me or you to project positivity onto the collective idea of the black male. The real challenge lies in getting white people to connect that narrative back to the black people with whom they interact in real life. You could support positive narratives all day, but if you’re still afraid of me on a subconscious level then what’s the point? We must also project that same positivity and kindness onto the individual black male too.