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Social Studies

Don’t Tell, Don’t Tell

By Vincent Williams | Posted 3/22/2006

This is how you would catch the infamous Double Spanking in the Williams household when I was growing up. Child A would do something. Child B would tell my mother, my parents’ appointed Minister of Corporeal Punishment, on Child A. Child A would get a spanking for whatever it is he or she (but usually he) did. But Child B—Child B would catch a bad one for tattling on Child A. I guess, in some ways, you could say my mother was a proponent of the Stop Snitching concept.

I’m being facetious, of course. There was no premium placed on keeping secrets so much as my parents wanted to illustrate the importance of solidarity. My mom would serve as the surrogate Outsider, and my siblings and I learned the very important lesson that if we didn’t watch each others’ proverbial backs, the world would beat our literal backsides.

Obviously, this wasn’t a lesson unique to my house. Loose lips have been sinking ships for ages. Every family has dirty laundry that cannot be aired. Whether your community came over with the Pilgrims, on a slave ship, or as part of the tired, poor, and unwashed, there has always been a certain amount of cultural information that only those in the culture know. Usually, that information was based in something like language. Historically, immigrants have pragmatically formed communities based on this most basic type of information. And you can see examples of this throughout American history. Enslaved Africans communicated through work songs and drums, European immigrants in the early 20th century spoke the language of the Old Country, and, now, most Chinese restaurants in this country has menu items and signs without English translations.

In fact, membership and knowledge are often interchangeable. Only those who know are down, and if you do know, then you must be down. The snitch/nonsnitch paradigm isn’t about the discovery of information; it’s about access to information. It always makes me think of Whoopi Goldberg’s old Fontaine act, where she’s amazed at Anne Frank actually being in hiding for all those years, because “everyone that I knew who was hiding . . . I knew where they were!”

All jokes aside, the Fontaine act does allude to the issue we’re all dealing with, mostly, in our inner cities. Reading a menu is one thing, matters of life and death are another. It seems like the whole Stop Snitching thing has reached a boiling point. Regardless of school and community protests, that infamous red stop sign remains emblazoned on T-shirts and sweatshirts throughout the country. On the national stage, the investigation of the murder of Israel Ramirez, Busta Rhymes’ bodyguard, apparently continues to be hampered by the specter of being branded a snitch. Since Lil’ Kim’s federal sentencing, many of her now former friends, including Junior M.A.F.I.A. alumnus Lil’ Cease, have been making the hip-hop radio, print, and web site rounds attempting to throw the stigma off being a snitch. And, locally, the criminal case of Terrence Smith is only the latest to spotlight the issue. Smith allegedly ordered a hit on two associates because he suspected them of snitching. Though the charges were dropped, it put snitching back in the headlines and illustrated just how dangerous even being suspected of snitching can be.

But, again, I believe there’s a symbiotic link between information and inclusion that we rarely address when we talk about this subject, because it’s much easier just to vilify people without dealing with the context in which they evolved. If you take a group of people and racially, socioeconomically, and geographically marginalize and Balkanize them, it’s only understandable if they’re hesitant to share information with outsiders. And could you be any more outside than the authorities? Hell, I’ve been law-abiding, polite, and well-spoken my entire life, but I’ve spent enough time with my hands spread on the back of police cars because of “misunderstandings” and “illegal lane changes” that, well, even though I’m a homeowning, good-driver-discount-on-car-insurance-having registered voter, my black behind is still uncomfortable with the police. Unholstered guns and the coldness of Route 1 concrete against my face aside, if we’re really going to come to some type of understanding, we need to look beyond T-shirts and street credibility and start to re-evaluate how we define the terms “us” and “them.”

Consequently, my mother’s moral lesson/psychological warfare worked beautifully. Me and my sibs are as close as three really close peas in some type of freakish pod that has three peas can be. To this day, if someone talks a little greasy about me, my sister will swoop down on them like some kind of well-manicured, Manolo Blahnik-wearing flying dinosaur—a flyassadactyl, maybe. And the things I’ve done for my brother, well, I probably shouldn’t say. Which, y’know, is kinda the point here. Some events, some actions, some knowledge is family business; if you’re not my brother or sister, I’m not going to tell you about it. Of course, after that, we don’t need to deal with whether or not I would be snitching; we need to think about who we call “brothers” and “sisters.” But then, we should probably be doing that anyway, right?

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