Paper on Brent Staples Just Walk on By - The Portrayal of an African American Man's Struggle With His Appearance

Paper on Brent Staples Just Walk on By - The Portrayal of an African American Man's Struggle With His Appearance

Brent Staples “Just Walk On By” is the portrayal of an African American man’s struggle with his appearance and how he must adapt his own life to accommodate others. The author describes how throughout his life he had been mistaken for a criminal, murderer, or simply a vicious individual, when in reality this was far from true. Staples understands why certain people may be afraid of him, especially young women during nighttime. While anger seems to be the stem of Staple’s writing, he never puts blame on anyone and remains calm throughout all his ordeals . Young black males are overrepresented as perpetrators of violence, and Brent Staples learned this the hard way .

Staples begins his essay by stating that “my first victim was a woman – white, well dressed, probably in her late twenties.” The reader is subjected to what Staples his whole life has gone through, being falsely accused as a target of criminal or menacing behavior; especially by women. By saying his “victim”, the reader immediately assumes that Staples is a bad man or evil .

Being a relatively young female, it is hard not to assume such prejudices. I have personally been mugged before by an African-American man and it was one of the most terrifying incidences of my life! Perhaps I am now a little more nervous around such men during the dark of night, which I realize is unfair since not every black male is dangerous. However, the fact of the matter is that it happened to me and it was the precise setup that Brent Staples recounts. It was dark and late at night; I was leaving a convenience store after purchasing some cigarettes and a diet coke. As I walked out of the store about to put my wallet into my purse an African American male came up behind me and knocked me to the ground after he grabbed my wallet from my trembling hands. The man was ten times my size so there was definitely no way for me to defend myself. Regardless of color, women cannot stand up to large men and protect themselves, so is it wrong for us to be afraid? This was several years ago, but the experience changed my life forever .

Staples goes on to elaborate on his view of women fearing him . “I often see women who fear the worst from me… they forge ahead as though bracing themselves against being tackled. I understand.. the danger they perceive is not a hallucination.” (Staples 154.) He knows that he is seen as an alleged threat to women, and it is sad that others have given black males a bad name. According to the Center on Disease Control's annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, African Americans were arrested for aggravated assault at a rate nearly three times that of whites (137 per 100,000, versus 48 per 100,000). Also, African American youths represent 32% of all weapons arrests, and were arrested for weapons offenses at a rate twice that of whites (69 per 100,000, versus 30 per 100,000). [1] These statistics show that while black males are perhaps more violent than the average Caucasian, the entire race should not be punished . Staples goes on to write, “women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black males are drastically over-represented among the perpetrators of that violence. These truths are no solace against alienation that comes of being ever the suspect.” (Staples 154 .). The same study showed that African Americans report being in a physical fight at a similar rate (36.5%, versus 32.5% for whites), so it is easy to see that the main statistics people remember are the ones that put blacks in a bad light; making them appear to be more menacing than they really are .
While African-Americans are busy being perpetrated as thugs and criminals, the real threat to women is not strangers they pass on the street, but men that they already know; often times the ones sleeping beside them . Many will recall the recent case of Jasmine Fiore, a young girl that I knew from Santa Cruz. Her husband, Ryan Jenkins was a well off businessman that beat and strangled Jasmine before stuffing her into a suitcase and removing all her teeth in an attempt to inhibit her body from being identified. The poor woman was finally identified through the serial number on her breast implants. This man in no way shape or form would ever be seen as a killer or threat to society. Because he is white and affluent he is automatically thought to be superior. Not only did he murder his wife, someone that he supposedly loved, while looking directly into her eyes, but he did it in such a disturbing and grotesque manner. Upon further investigation it was discovered that he was on a reality dating show and also involved with another woman while still being with Jasmine! And who could forget the murder of Laci Peterson, also murdered by her husband, who was an attractive white businessman. Cases like this happen all the time and are much more disturbing than passing a stranger on the street since the danger lies in your own home. People should be judged on their character instead of simply on their skin tone.

It definitely is unfair that now Staples must change his behavior to accommodate others. However, I believe that this can be comforting. He describes, “that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.” (Staples 155.) Unfortunately in society, non-verbal communication accounts for 90% of our interpretations and beliefs about someone. If someone is 6’8 tall and 200 pounds, it is inevitable that a 5’0 woman weighing in at a whopping hundred pounds is going to be afraid. That’s just the way things are. But if said man was perhaps whistling a non-threatening tune in a dark alley instead of rapping curse words, one would be much less afraid .

Brent Staple’s account of his life and the hardships that he has struggled through being falsely perceived as a threat to society are undoubtedly unfair, however it is a stereotype that is perpetuated through society. People only focus on the statistics that portray such men in a bad light and believe that if one is a white, successful man that they cannot be dangerous. Unfortunately, for women such as myself who have been in altercations that Staple’s describes, it is impossible to not feel afraid since there is no way to defend oneself. I would certainly feel a little more at ease if a man crept up behind me “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi” , since a woman is merely a sheep in bear country .

1. Arrests of youth, by race, from Crime in the United States, 2001. (2002). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigations.; Population of youth from Puzzanchera, C., Finnegan, T. and Kang, W. (2005

2. Staples, Brent. "Just Walk On By." Occasions For Writing . (2008): 153-155.