When Passive Aggression Turns Deadly

Okay, so let me be up front about something.

Many of my pieces originate with me ranting about something that annoys me, and this is no exception. It’s hard to write this without coming off as self-serving, because on a basic level, this is about me being annoyed with people who are passive-aggressive.

I’ve often heard it said that the things we hate the most are the things we dislike about ourselves, and for me, this is true! In general, I hate passive-aggressive behavior, and I hate it even more now because I find myself surrounded by it enough that it’s starting to affect me.

Which is really janky, because black people… we don’t usually do passive-aggressive. It’s not what we’re known for. But Portland is a very passive-aggressive place, and living here, it’s like I can’t even help it.

True story…

Once, when I was pissed that my bus commute was taking a long time, I decided to punish the driver by rejecting the established public transit protocol. That’s right, I decided to NOT thank her as I exited the bus. I was gonna stick it to The Man by conspicuously avoiding saying “thank you.”

So when my big moment came, I rang the bell, stood up at the door, lost my nerve, and said it anyway.

But I didn’t mean it.


*               *              *


So okay, real talk, this passive-aggressive thing, it’s a problem for me. And frankly, it’s a problem for everyone. Because even if you don’t have that problem yourself, sometimes passive-aggressive tendencies can have unintended consequences, and those consequences are like elements in chemical compounds. Mixed with the wrong thing at the wrong time, they can be deadly.

If that sounds like hyperbole, if you feel like the title to this piece was just another piece of fear-mongering clickbait, let me break it down for you.



First off, you have to understand that a lot of passive-aggressive  behavior is driven by a general desire to avoid any sort of conflict or confrontation. Which is understandable, because sometimes conflict can be painful or awkward. It’s almost never fun, and many of us would just rather avoid it when we can.


As a result, passive aggressive people tend to outsource their confrontation to any authority who can deal with the problem as they perceive it. This is why, as college students, they’re more likely to call the RA about “the loud music problem” than they are to actually walk twelve feet across the hallway to ask their neighbor to turn down their music. Or in an office setting, they’re more likely to leave a note about the problem, rather than talk to someone face to face about the thing they’re upset about.

People who like to avoid confrontation often assess threats based on nonverbal cues, like body language or facial expressions. Some people, however, end up incorrectly assessing the problem or the threat they perceive, basing their judgments on body language and facial cues that they don’t understand. When passive-aggressive people misjudge these cues, they end up exaggerating their perceived threats, and sometimes even fabricating them wholesale. People like the protagonists of this video often end up suffering negative consequences after being misjudged about their attitudes and intentions, just because they don’t often appear to have a pleasant countenance.

Usually, these misjudgments end up in embarrassing misunderstandings. And in the few times when authorities are called, they usually know enough to be able to assess and differentiate real threats from misunderstandings. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes you find out later that they were trained by the same people who make the same embarrassing misjudgments, and end up inadvertently passing along cultural blind spots with mistaken assumptions.

253893-c21c0In the case of Ronald and April Ritchie, this is exactly what happened. But instead of some wacky misunderstanding, the result was a man being shot and killed. Specifically, the Ritchie couple called 911 on a young man named John Crawford III, who was carrying a BB-gun while walking next to them in a Walmart store. After police arrived, they shot and killed him.

Now, given the national furor over the events in Ferguson, Mo., plenty of virtual ink will be spilled around the blogosphere by people trying to figure out whether this shooting was justified. Personally, I don’t think it was, but I can sympathize a little with the officer who took the shot. He was put into a difficult position and made a split-second choice, which ended up being tragically wrong.

But whether the shooting was legally or morally justifiable or not, it’s clear that the officer who shot John Crawford III did so only because he was given reason to believe that Crawford was a viable threat to shoot or kill. And it’s equally clear from the evidence that the Ritchie couple were the only ones who perceived him to be such a threat.

I mean, if he was really brandishing and pointing the weapon at people like they said he would, then wouldn’t multiple people have called 911? But no one else did. Not only that, but according to reports, during the recording of the Ritchie’s 911 call, there was no ambient screaming or audible panic. “Anytime I saw people walking his way, I would get their attention,” said April Ritchie (as quoted in this recent CBS news story). Which was her way of saying, I was trying to get the other people to see how dangerous this man was, since they were acting like this was no big deal.

Part of what influenced the Ritchies’ perception of Crawford was his racial identity. See, John Crawford III was a 22-year-old black man. And Americans of almost all stripes are conditioned by our society to view black men as threats.

Now already to this sentiment, many readers will object — why does this have to be a racial thing? Why isn’t it just that they were scared because they thought he had a gun?

There’s a longer answer at this Medium post, but for now, I offer the following as evidence.

Go to YouTube, and type the words “open carry Walmart” in the search box. Your search results will cascade with video examples of people, usually white males, doing their best to practice their 2nd-Amendment rights by carrying legally-registered guns in Walmart stores.

And you know what you won’t find in those videos? The sounds of actual gunfire, panicked shouting, people running for their lives, or police shouting “drop your weapon!!!” Because when white people see other white people carrying guns, they tend to see actual gunmen wielding actual guns more as safety hazards or ordinance violations. They ask them to stop, or to leave. But when white people see black people carrying anything they perceive to be a gun, they see them as mortal threats to be neutralized by any means necessary.

Now I don’t know if April or Ronald Ritchie would be the kind of people to leave a note next to the office coffee maker or not. But I do know that their actions reflect the same kind of privileged avoidance techniques that are second nature to many who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior. At the root is a desire to eliminate perceived threats without the risk of becoming uncomfortable. This is why, instead of simply asking if the gun was real or requesting that he stop pointing it at people (which, according to his family’s attorney who viewed the security video, he did no such thing),  they followed him “at a safe distance.” Ronald himself determined pretty quickly, “I couldn’t hear anything that he was saying. I’m thinking that he is either going to rob the place or he’s there to shoot somebody.”

It is an unquestionably tragic event that this shooting occurred, but it goes to illustrate an important, overlooked truth:

Passive-aggressive behaviors, when mixed with unconscious racial bias, can create toxic situations for people of color.


direct confrontationAnd they don’t have to end up in gunfire in order to be tragic. When black people tend to be the last hired and first fired, who do you think is sowing the seeds of discontent by complaining behind their back about their music, style of hair, dress or conversation? Passive-aggressive people, that’s who. They’re more likely to say something vague like, “I just don’t think she fits here,” instead of something more honest and direct, like “I asked her to stop doing [X, Y & Z] and she refused.”

If it looks like I’m taking this personally, well yeah. I am. Because of my personality, I’ve been accused of being aloof, and I’m fairly sure I’ve lost out on employment opportunities because my default mode of operation made someone else uncomfortable. Rather than taking time to think about what that was or why I was doing it, they just decided to make me someone else’s problem. And hear me out here … they are well within their rights to do so. I’m not saying that kind of decision is always wrong. But done consistently, over time, it can become an unhealthy way to live.

Think about this scenario….

I’m a worship musician, and often I end up traveling to churches to lead worship that are many miles away from my neighborhood. Occasionally, I’ll travel up to Seattle or somewhere in California and make a road trip out of it. What if I’m stuck waiting behind someone who’s driving slow in the left lane, and they get intimidated when they see me in their rear view mirror? And what if, after they move over and I’m passing them, they see my microphone stand — a long, black, cylindrical object — in my car and think it’s a rifle? There are all kinds of ways where that scenario could go sideways in a hurry.

Look, folks. Don’t get me wrong. If anyone is truly afraid for their life, I’m not advocating that they try to be a hero.

But I think it’s important to examine the root causes of our fear triggers, and perhaps start developing healthier ways of addressing them besides passive avoidance. Because direct communication isn’t just a great way to improve our relationships at home, and at work. It’s also a way of breaking down the societal barriers that keep us from understanding each other.

So if you’re not ready to engage in the deep, soul-searching work of trying to uncover your implicit racial bias, then the least you can do is stop being so passive-aggressive.

You might just save a life.


Real talk — that life might be mine.



  1. I love your writing Jelani.

    My parents are incredibly indirect. So are many leaders at my church. Often I’m left wondering how to prevent a counter offensive, so apologise or make renumerations for something when I’m unsure what the actual trigger was. I think this is a huge blindspot in our culture, that we don’t just deal practically with actual events. Not only is that in regards to having to act over imagined events, but it’s also not acting when we should.

    Actual events in Ferguson were disgraceful, and require systemic change. I hope people can stand with you in moving towards this change.

    • Y’know, I would think that Aussies wouldn’t have this proclivity to the same extent, but maybe that’s just me buying into the stereotype. I guess you could also say passivity doesn’t seem to be a particularly American attribute either (especially as compared to Canadians), but obviously there are plenty of us who are, so hey, what do I know? 🙂

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