Losing Isaiah: Is Self Censorship a Way to Avoid Driving While Black?

04/06/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

How much freedom of expression does Black America withhold in exchange for a measure of safety in White America? What do we gain by that, and what do we lose? How much of our flavor, our life rhythm do we have to suppress daily to fit in, thrive, and survive?

When I heard about the tweet that Isaiah Washington sent to Chris Rock, where he stated that he traded in his Mercedes G500 for a Prius to avoid being constantly profiled by the police and that Chris should consider doing likewise, it reminded me of my own internal dialogs about the compromises I and many Black men make to get by in America. There's been a lot of negative feedback towards Isaiah from Black Twitter about his admission but I wonder less what that says about him and more what that says about this society, when people of color feel they have to deny their personal tastes to be accepted and to feel safe?

Black people have always been the "other" in America. Even so, we've been taught that professional excellence will give us access to the equality that America tells it's citizens they can achieve. But how true is that if someone who wants to enjoy the benefits of what they achieved through their excellence constantly gets stopped by police for displaying them? There's a white supremacist mindset that feels any Black man driving a nice car is somehow doing something above his station in life, or being "uppity", which is really code for the insecurity of those who see success as a threat when success comes in dark skin. It's a mentality that can have terrible results when the person who believes in it wears a badge. It's worse when people of color surrender to that belief.

There isn't a Black person over the age of thirty who hasn't seen the film Imitation of Life. It touched on a phenomenon that was prevalent in the Black community where some of us who's skin was light enough chose to "pass"; to completely cut themselves off from their African-American heritage and in many cases, the families who raised them, to masquerade as white. I try not to judge those who passed, and I understand that they were trying to escape a brutally enforced system of socioeconomic oppression the only way they could. But I often wonder what life must have been like for them. I imagine it must have been hell, living a shadow life, always fearful that a chance meeting in the street or the birth of a child might pull the rug out from under the edifice of deception they built around themselves.

It was an erasure of self. Self-censoring is another form of erasure. It's tragic, because the flavor of American life would be sterile without the richness of Black culture. There is no form of music and dance that originated in the United States that doesn't have roots in African-American rhythms. If you want to know what will be hot on runways in two years, go to the hood and see what kids are wearing. Our way of speaking, our style, how we move, how we think and how we create something out of nothing has always been admired, studied and imitated, even when the creators weren't acknowledged.

Those are cultural traits to be celebrated and Isaiah Washington, or any other person of color, should not have to suppress them to appease the ignorance of anyone else. To do so risks cutting yourself off from your soul, and watching bitterly as the culture we create gets co-opted and we end up running after our own heritage, trying to reclaim it like Sarah Jane chasing after her mother's coffin at the end of Imitation of Life.