The truth of When They See Us

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

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When They See Us has done something to the world that we cannot yet place a finger on.

Prior to this Netflix series, it was something abstract; something we idly watched via BLM protests via CNN.

Prior to now, you did not really understand it yourself, unless you were a person of colour, or had relations with persons of colour, AND lived in North America.


It was in 2012 that I first had an insight into the reality of what this truth was.

A freshly-landed post-grad student in the sleepy town of Halifax, with all the “perks” of being a post-grad student in Law; the automatic social pedigree that being a lawyer had conferred, and the sheer oblivion that being a new immigrant cloaked me with.

I resided a mere two blocks from the Law building, and was thankful to be able to walk all of just six minutes for classes and research, without having to curse the god of snow for the blizzards that poured that year.

I lived with four other (generally) quiet flatmates. (We had had one other very noisy flatmate, but thankfully, had been able to get the Landlord ask him to leave, due to his incessant, petulant and noise-making) Other than the occasional heavy downpour that winter, nothing interesting happened.

Go to class. Gym. Eat. Class. Sleep. Gym. Eat. Dunk. Sleep.

That was as interesting as life then got.

Until that day I came back from class at about 6pm, and found all three other flatmates speaking excitedly just outside the door, with three strange girls also.

I just said hi, walked in, and plopped on the bed. It had been an exhausting day.

Hey”. One of the flatmates – let’s call her Nadia – knocked on my door and peeped in.

What’s up?”

Those girls are from the flat upstairs”. (We lived on the second floor of a two-storey “butchered” apartment).

They were robbed while they were in class. Someone made away with someone’s laptop, and some cash”.


(Sigh. I knew this would happen one day. This darned culture of trusting everyone, and not locking the backdoor)


Oh yea. The police was here earlier. They’ll be back later. Maybe tomorrow… to ask if any of us had seen something”.

By now, we had walked into the living room. It was just me and Nadia. Our third flatmate – let’s call him Tyrion - came to join us as we conversed.

When did this happen?” I was still dazed.

They say it was probably between 10 am and noon. Because the last of them left for class at 10.00, and it was about noon that the first came back. Only to find out that her laptop had been taken. And none of us downstairs was around; I was the last of us to leave at 9.30, and came back at 4.30ish. None of you were back”.

Wait… did she just say between 10 am and noon?

Ahh... I came home at 11 am to pick up one of my notes I forgot earlier. I sat on my bed briefly to rest for like 15 minutes”.

I had not realised I left my IP note, until an hour after I left.

“Now you say this… it’s like I heard someone try to turn my door knob. But I thought it was just you. I was too tired to get up”.

What?” Nadia looked shocked. “I was at school all day. So was Tyrion, and Steven (let’s call our last flatmate Steven). I came back at 4.30”, she repeated.

So that means the burglar probably also came into our flat, to try to take something?”

We began to look round, and called Steven in. We all checked to see if any of our stuff was intact, but nothing was missing (thank God). Steven stayed back in his room, to catch up on studies.

Me, Nadia and Tyrion were left again in the living room conversing.

I should probably still tell the Police tomorrow, or whenever they come, that I’d heard something”.

God, no! Please!!”

That was Tyrion. I turned in shock, and stared at him.

If there was the poster for a young gentleman, it was Tyrion. While not African, he was dark-skinned, and of African descent, from one of the Island countries. He LOVED eating my Nigerian jollof-rice anytime I made some.

Tyrion was one of the most respectful, well-mannered young men I ever met. When he was not in class, he was playing soccer for the school team. If we needed to take out the trash, it was Tyrion. If there was a “soft” brawl brewing among flatmates, Tyrion was the peacemaker.

Tyrion was the bulb-fixer, handyman, and amateur engineer.

Tyrion was the perfect flatmate. Barely 24 (or so), he could pass for the younger brother I never had.

Which is why I was shocked to my teeth.

 Did you do this?” I asked, eyes wide open.

Of course not. Why would I ever??” If this was acting, boy… he was really good at it then.

Then why not??”, I questioned. I noticed Nadia was not as questioning, she just sighed and looked down.

(Oh... the naivety of me)

Because… ” he gestured with his hands at all three of us.

I don’t understand”. I really did not understand.

He means we three are black”, Nadia said quietly. (Technically, Nadia was brown. Steven was a wiley, good-natured, all-Caucasian kid)

I couldn’t comprehend this. We were black; so? It couldn’t have anything to do with the theft.

And I voiced as much, with the most nonchalance.

Please, I beg you. I’m the only black male here. Don’t say anything please”.

I still could not understand the co-relation between his demographic, and the theft. But something in his voice and his eyes told me this was real.

Please. I swear to you, it’s not me. I have just one more year to finish school. I’ve stayed out of trouble all through. I don’t want any trouble… please”.


In that moment, I was torn between trying to understand this “irrational” fear, and doing the right thing, if called upon.

Thankfully, I did not have to worry about this conflict. The police never came to take statements; they got fingerprints from the flat upstairs, ran them, and picked up the suspect, who also self-confessed.

(It was subsequently published in the local paper)

But I never forgot that incident. And while I reside in the part of North America where (thankfully) we have not had a sitting national C-I-C, who had taken pages of adverts for to incite national HATE against children (of colour), the underlying reality of that incident is something I have since learnt still lives and breathes among us.

I have seen it in subtle undertones, and in overt actions. I have seen people of colour quick to be carded, for no reason. Heck… I have been one.

That incident however was the (much needed) catalyst that began to open my eyes to the reality of people of colour largely punished for committing crimes of being at the wrong place.

At the wrong time.

People in the past, like Emmet Till.

People in the (then) future. Like Sandra Bland.

This was why Tyrion had asked begged me not to say anything. Because of the harsh reality, that as persons of colour in our society, you’re more likely to be guilty, until proven innocent. While paying the ultimate price, for the “presumed” guilt.

A reality that actual studies has laid credence to.

It is this reality that Ava DuVernay and When They See Us has brought to our consciousness; to all of us.

The world is experiencing this “Aha!” moment in unison.


There are many lessons we can draw from When You See Us. Lessons like never, ever speak to the police without your lawyer present.

Or that the pursuit for convictions by prosecutors should never trump genuine administration of justice.

But my spirit is too exhausted emotionally, to intelligently draw out all the lessons.

It is not so much the movie that has broken me, as the underlying reality it portends. The reality that till date, persons of colour are still more prone to be arrested and held for crimes they did not commit.

The reality that between then and now, reality has not changed much.

The one lesson When You See Us reinforces is that until ALL humanity comes to terms with the reality of racism, and consciously decide to eradicate it (if ever), people of colour in North America do not have the privilege of being at the wrong place.

At the wrong time.


Photo Credit: When They See Us (by Ava DuVernay)

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  1. Nice right up. You are really Sir Reuben Egbunonu's daughter. Keep up the good work.

  2. The stereotyping of people of colour seriously needs to stop. I'm glad "when they see us" restarted this conversation again but our society needs to feel the change and not just talk and it ends there.