Being Mary Jane, Daniel Holtzclaw, and White Consumption of Black Pain

This morning I was walking my dog when I ran into a woman who lives in my complex that I saw yesterday, on my birthday. She asked what I ended up doing to celebrate last night, and I said, “Ate Indian food and watched Being Mary Jane. Pretty much an ideal birthday situation.” She laughed politely and then asked,

“What’s Being Mary Jane? Is that a show?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yes, it’s a show.”

“What channel does it come on?”

“BET.”

As our dogs peed next to each other, I watched her face undergo a transformation of some kind: from one of curiosity to one of something like amusement.

“Is it a reality show or something?”

She’d never heard of it, and by the look on her face, it was pretty clear she was uninterested in hearing of it. “BET” had triggered something in her — I can’t say what, exactly. Contempt? I’ve had interactions like this with other white people in the past, people whose reception of cinema and television in which black characters lead is strangely dismissive, interpreting black-led narratives as something fringe; a niche separate from “real” TV.

Meanwhile, Being Mary Jane attracted 2.2 million viewers in its season 3 premiere last month and garnered a total of 226,000 tweets by 2.2 million unique authors, generating 13.5 million impressions. In the show, Mary Jane copes with love, family, sex, friendship, career challenges…she is everywoman, and the show also manages to effortlessly weave in discussions on mental health — particularly the much-overlooked issue of black women’s mental health — racism, sexual violence, and sexism. Yet this woman in my complex — a white woman, like me — had never heard of it, and seemed ready to dismiss it as a trashy reality show by its mere proximity to BET.

Now, maybe this lady doesn’t watch TV at all — BET or anything else. Maybe she doesn’t know about Gabrielle Union’s track record of advocating for survivors of sexual violence — a résumé that I think should call every woman in America to watch and support this show. But either way, this interaction got me thinking about the ways in which white people consume black pain vs. black love and how that vantage point affects the world.

The nation was polarized — as it so often is — in recent weeks when a video of a South Carolina police officer brutally assaulting a middle school girl was released on social media. The video went viral, sparking outrage from some and victim-blaming from others. The video was shared by millions: I saw it posted on Facebook, I saw it posted on Twitter. I even saw it posted on LinkedIn at one point, and later removed. This visual account of violence against the body of a black child was everywhere, prompting articles encouraging people to resist posting the video, and to instead post thoughtful critique of the attack. Necessary to point out, I would say, as some of those I saw sharing the video offered little to no accompanying comment — not even to condemn the actions of the officer. “This is crazy,” is all some would say, the barest of commentary.

Now this week there has been a rash of videos being shared enthusiastically across social media networks — videos of black students acting out in class, some getting violent with teachers and other authority figures. Like the abovementioned video of Officer Ben Fields, often these images are shared without comment. The implication, of course, is evident: “See?” these videos say. “See?”

The idea of “seeing” black people is what I’ve been thinking about lately. There is a market, it seems, for the consumption of black pain: sometimes that consumption is vicious, sometimes it’s sentimental, but it is always inherently violent. The whitewashed landscape of American media is so often absent of the faces of people of color, and when we do see the faces of black children, for example, it is in videos like these: children behaving violently or being treated with violence. White audiences view and share these images, often without thought, swallowing whole black pain and black death as a digital commodity, or perhaps a coin in the bank of allyship, before regurgitating meaningless tweets like “This is crazy.” What’s crazy is never specifically said.

When we do this, we are not seeing and valuing black life. We are consuming black death. What does it say about the lens through which white Americans see the world when a television show like Being Mary Jane — an entire network; BET — is somehow too foreign to relate to, but images of violence against black bodies are consumed as readily as Geico commercials? For white Americans, is a video of the beating of a black child more relatable than a black woman on TV living, laughing, and loving? Maybe so. Whiteness dictates that white people craft our realities very carefully — subconsciously and not — in an order that makes sense to us in the context of our white supremacist upbringing. We pick and choose — and the media helps us decide — which aspects of blackness we would like to devour. As white people, we are given that luxury.

On Monday November 2nd, the trial of Daniel Holtzclaw began. Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer, has been charged with sexually assaulting and raping 13 black women and girls. His crimes have flown low on the radar of mainstream media outlets — at the time of this paragraph, CNN has yet to report on the trial of a serial rapist who was a police officer at the time of his crimes. Instead, the demand for justice — and, really, the call for mere acknowledgement — has come from a vocal few on social media, such as author and activist Feminista Jones. The same people that shared the assault of a middle school girl so vociferously are silent on Holtzclaw — perhaps because there is no spectacle. No pain porn to gawk at. There are layers, it seems, to which instances of black pain are within the white scope of “seeing.” We don’t want to dig. We don’t want to be forced to attach humanity to a story without a graphic representation that we can swallow and regurgitate. We are addicted to black blood — we don’t believe the story without it.

The justice system, of course, informs the lens of our white world. On Tuesday, jury selection for Holtzclaw’s trial was completed — 12 white men and women. An all-white jury for a man charged with raping 13 black girls and women.

An all-white jury for a man charged with raping 13 black girls and women.

Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rates for black men in the country. Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any other state in the country. And here we have 13 black women and girls who were raped by a half white, half Asian police officer — with not only no black women on the jury, but no black people at all. The justice for these women’s pain at the hands of an officer of the law now relies on how they will be seen through the lens of 12 white people. Multiple studies have published the consequences of all-white juries, and generally we understand this to mean the disproportionate conviction of black defendants — but an all-white jury has just as much potential for damage when it’s the perp who is white and the victims who are black. Aversive racism. Implicit bias. 13 black women and girls raped by a police officer who now rely on 12 white people to see them as human; to see them as capable of suffering; to see them as deserving of safety and justice.

To see them.

There is a thread that connects all this. It’s the thread that draws the white gaze to the video of Ben Fields beating a child, but away from discussion about the crimes of Daniel Holtzclaw. It’s the thread that leads to white Facebookers flaunting the footage of Walter L. Scott, situating black death and black pain as synonymous with black existence — and often justifying that violence.

What about these videos makes us hungry? And where is our appetite for images of black success, black love, black joy? In truth, it’s wrong to frame the latter in the context of hunger. Blackness in any capacity is not on a plate, and certainly not at a table we sit at unless invited. None of this is ours to consume. Not black death, and not black life. The world is not ours to approach with our teeth, white people. Stop chewing. Stop chewing. Push away the plate and see.