A Letter of Fellowship to John Henson

A message for John Henson of the Milwaukee Bucks in the wake of the the racial profiling incident he experienced at a Whitefish Bay jewelry store.

Big Man, I see you.

John, if I may, thank you for the Instagram post and for documenting your experience at Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers in Whitefish Bay. Not only does it show the value of social media and digital technology in continually highlighting how these daily experiences expose the problems with race and racism in society, its even more important that as a professional athlete you took the stance to expose the store and the workers’ behaviors. Your experience is a reminder to others that even status and popularity wont serve as shields from the exigencies of blackness.

The storeowner made amends with you, as he should have. He stated in the Journal Sentinel article, “We believe that everyone — professional athlete or not — deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” He’s certainly correct. Yet, you and those who see you know this wont be your last encounter with racial profiling. As adult men who constantly navigate the treacherous realm between being feared and assumed to be criminal, we both know how tenuous these encounters can be, especially once the police are called. But it takes its toll.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this year in his tour de force, Between the World and Me “The need to be on guard (is) an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contribute(s) to the fast breakdown of our bodies…”(90). And as Ralph Ellison wrote in 1947, constantly negotiating for that dignity and respect “…is most often wearing on the nerves.”

Since you shared your experience with the world, let me share my recent experience of being profiled when attempting to also spend money at an establishment. And this is an establishment I frequent at least twice a month.

I’m not native to Milwaukee, and in fact spent seven years in Charlotte, N.C. In my time here I’ve come to appreciate a well-made Old Fashioned – it’s my adult beverage of choice. And, given my earned status of middle age, I needed to learn to make these in the comfort of my own home. I found a pretty solid recipe and headed to an establishment to purchase my ingredients. This was not a light affair. Age also brings exacting standards for these decisions. As I gathered my ingredients, I recognized a gentlemen going about his job as store security and gave him a nod. I’d seen him several times before and just assumed I was familiar to him. In fact, I recognized him from similar work he performed at other venues. I can only assume now that he never saw me.

An impressive Old Fashioned requires the best ingredients so I needed to take my time and do some comparison-shopping. Soon I realized the gentlemen I had acknowledged just happened to be in every aisle I was in. I chuckled once I realized he was profiling me, especially since he was supposed to be “undercover.” So, as any person with a hint of frustration in these situations would do, I led him on about a 10-minute journey. I placed a few items in my cart, then returned them to wrong places in the establishment. I phoned a friend and joked openly about being profiled. I led him down an aisle or two just to see how far this would go. It was funny for a bit, but I needed to get home and work on my recipe. As I concluded the journey, the gentlemen, who also had a cart, followed me to the checkout. At that point I turned to him and fought off laughter long enough to say, “Dude, really?” He never replied. He turned, walked away, never uttered a word and returned to his undercover role. He was no navy seal.

Between checking out and getting into my car, I had grown pissed off. I had just dropped a hefty sum in a place I frequent, only to be profiled by a familiar person whom I acknowledged, but who clearly had never seen me. I called and gave the manager on duty an ear-full. I explained that I was profiled, and I knew this to be true because of the aforementioned details. I explained that the plain-clothes security person also worked at other establishments and I explained how the security team goes about its jobs. I explained that this was easy to determine because they were so sloppy about their work. I explained that with technology today, we could sit down and chart how much money I had spent in that establishment over the years, and thus being profiled was even more offensive. I explained my academic training and community-based engagement. I explained the current legal standing with racial profiling, recounted related legal developments in key areas across county, and promised that I would put the establishment on “full blast” if it ever happened again. I also explained that I would give the establishment a pass this time since this was the action of one person and since I had never experienced profiling in that establishment before.

I had on sweatpants and a hoodie – it was the weekend, I was chilling. For all I know, the profiler may have had on sweats and a hoodie too. It’s hard to recall since he was, you know, undercover. Beyond the fears associated with that uniform there isn’t much else I can find to prompt suspicion except my race.

But check this out, Big Man. The profiler and the manager were both African American. The establishment is right here in the heart of Milwaukee. While it’s tempting to make these encounters purely about race, racism and/or racial proximity, there is a deeper, more nefarious set of problems at work. What so many commenters have tried to explain through the years is that these attitudes, beliefs and their associated actions are so deeply woven into the fabric our society, institutions and collective psyche that our mere presence propels fear and prompts ideas about black criminality. I would guess that for people who truly see guys like me and you, they would laugh at the idea of either of us committing the crimes those who fail to see us assume we are naturally prone to commit.

There is no real solace in this note, just some fellowship. So I end this with more words from Brother Coates, tweaked for this exchange:

But (we are) black men, and (we) must be responsible for (our bodies) in a way that other (men) cannot know. Indeed, (we) must be responsible for the worst action of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to (us). And (we) must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just (us) – women around (us) must be responsible for their bodies in a way that (we) never will know. (We) have to make (our) peace with the chaos, but (we) cannot lie. (71)

Big Man. I see you.



Dr. Robert S. Smith is an Associate Professor of History at UWM, Director of the Cultures & Communities Program, and was recently appointed Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Inclusion & Engagement. He is the author of "Race, Labor and Civil Rights: Griggs v. Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity. "