Why Do White People Struggle to Fully Comprehend Violence Against Black People?
Last night, I opened Twitter and the first thing I saw was a tweet from Shaun King. I noticed that the name mentioned in the tweet was also the top hashtag listed under Trends. Once I clicked on the hashtag, I watched a life end. I felt a familiar feeling start to wash over me— a feeling I have learned to battle. My default, gut reaction to witnessing the death of Alton Sterling was an attempt to feel numb. My mind struggled to make sense of what I viewed and that struggle was so intense I simply wanted to check out and not fully comprehend what it all meant. I am sharing that tweet here, with a disclaimer that viewing it comes with risks.
I had a realization several years ago that in the course of my life, the vast majority of the sensory input regarding black people involved violence. I have been bombarded with images of black bodies in shackles, being whipped, beaten, raped, hanged from trees, attacked by dogs, sprayed with hoses, dragged from public places, bloodied. Even when the context was an attempt to highlight the injustice, the imagery was still pretty much the same. As a white person, especially one raised in the Deep South, it became easy to disassociate myself with these images. It was challenging to view myself or my family in these situations. The people who looked like me in these same historical contexts also seemed foreign to me. I didn’t connect with the plantation owner, the white faces gathered in a crowd observing a hanging body as if it were a carnival attraction, nor the white student aggressively taunting the new classmate post integration.
The result was an ability to view horrific injustice and feel no connection to the victim nor the perpetrator. This is an example of the privilege afforded to white Americans. It is why I wanted to write this today. I hope that other white people who read this will be honest with themselves about whether their reaction to the video of Alton Sterling would have triggered a different response had it shown a person we are not conditioned to see treated in such a manner. I am not, in any way, saying you are a bad person if you say your feelings would have varied had it been a white teenage girl in the same situation. No one is saying that, honestly. The point where you venture into “bad person” territory is when you refuse to acknowledge those feelings, or worse, when you acknowledge them, but do nothing to undo them or to speak out honestly about them.
Long before Tamir Rice was born in 2002, I viewed an image of Emmett Till in his casket— an image I can still picture in my mind when I close my eyes. I recall looking at that specific image, side by side with a different photograph Mamie Till Bradley had taken of her son on Christmas Day the year before his violent death. At the time, I thought about the strength she demonstrated by refusing to close his casket and silently bury him. The image of Emmett Till was the catalyst which unraveled my own conditioned response to seeing black people as somehow predisposed to a likely violent and brutal death. At the time, in 1955, Mamie Till Bradley stated, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” This mother surely thought that seeing her son, her 14 year old child, completely unrecognizable in a coffin would stir sympathy and understanding in the world. If you are unfamiliar with this image, you can find it easily. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you look. Really look and don’t allow yourself to disconnect.
Maya Angelou’s quote “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better” lingered in my mind this morning as I attempted to gather my thoughts to write this article. I thought of Mamie Till Bradley as I watched CNN play the unedited video of Alton Sterling. I wished I could thank her for playing a role in helping me to know better so I can do better. I wished I could show her that her bravery and that image of her son now serves as a permanent gate keeper, preventing me from tuning out, refusing to allow me to not see myself in that video. I wished I could do more, to help other people also know better. I wanted to reach out to Cameron Sterling, Alton’s 15-year-old son, and assure him that more people will know better having seen the video of his father’s last moments. Sadly, I questioned whether I could say that to him without having serious doubts.
White America, we must stop believing that we are separate from Black America. We must stop believing that the history of repeated violence against black people has no impact on our modern lives. Once we realize that regardless of our lineage, we have to do an incredible amount of work to unravel an insidious deterioration of our empathy toward black people, we realize that the past does shape and influence us. It is impossible to be alive today in America and not have a programmed, unconscious association between black bodies and violent deaths. We have a choice whether we stay anesthetized or whether we admit that there is work to do on our side— work that must be done by us before we can be at all effective as allies or advocates. We have to make a choice to not be numb; to not accept Alton Sterling’s death as normal or unavoidable or surely justified in some way. We have to know better.