On Reading and Antiracism: The Abstract

Previously in this series: On Reading and Antiracism: Hello, Fellow White People

In my last post, I looked at a single headline to show how headlines can obscure or minimize racism in the news we read. Today I want to look at a Twitter Moment.

Twitter sorts some of its content into Moments, which it describes as “curated stories showcasing the very best of what’s happening on Twitter.” Although anyone can create a Moment, the Moments appearing on Twitter’s Explore column are curated by Twitter employees. They summarize trends on Twitter, often a combination of news and jokes that are circulating widely.

I’ll be looking at a Moment from Sunday, July 5, and rather than look at each tweet or news story linked in the Moment, I want to look at the Moment’s packaging. How does Twitter choose to describe a viral news story? As previously, I’ll be working with screenshots that I describe in detail below.

A screenshot of a Twitter Moment’s header

As with newspaper headlines, Twitter users are more likely to encounter the header than the full story, even when that “full story” is simply a series of tweets. The headline here is “A man was arrested and his car window smashed on the way home from an interview about police brutality.” Taking this story out of context, what can we derive from this as a sentence?

“A man was arrested and his car window smashed…” The sentence is written in passive voice. By whom was the man arrested? Was it by the same person or persons who smashed in his car window? Although we can infer that these are connected, since they are joined by the word “and,” the sentence obscures the main actor or actors in the incident. We can guess that he was arrested by police, as they are the usual actors who perform arrests, but they are not to be found in this sentence.

The passive voice effectively makes the “man” the only actor in this sentence, even though what is described is others acting upon him. Although not explicitly victim-blaming, the sentence structure names no humans involved other than the man, himself deprived of a name and identity. Since the incident involves a Black man and police violence, his identity is actually important to parsing the story, as are the police. Although the blurry still shows a Black man, that context seems important for the text as well.

The second part of the headline refers to some of the context. The man was arrested and his window smashed as he was “on the way home from an interview about police brutality.” Although this provides more context, it’s actually lacking many details that would clarify it. Specifically, the (Black) man (who is named Ryan Colaço) was on his way home from an interview about the police brutality that had recently been enacted against him.

This is a large and important omission. He’s not someone who studies police brutality. He is not a police officer. He is someone the police recently brutalized and as he was on his way home from describing it, they brutalized him again. This is why it matters that the police are effectively missing from this sentence. They are the actors, and they are repeat actors, at that. The context is that, in the midst of a global movement protesting police brutality against Black people, the police repeatedly brutalized a Black man.

Below the headline, Twitter provides a summary of the story. I am parsing this as an abstract, as it performs the same purpose as an abstract in an academic article, as well as abstracting the story itself.

Twitter’s summary of the Moment

The summary is “Ryan Colaço was arrested twice in six days by police in England after he was wrongly accused of concealing drugs in May. A new Guardian [Twitter doesn’t offer italics] article reveals what officers didn’t know at the time of Colaço’s second arrest was that he was travelling home from an TV interview, where he spoke about his experiences with racism and the police.”

The summary provides more of the context, which is good, but again fails to mention the global movement protesting police brutality. It also completely elides Blackness, which is foundational to understanding the incident and its historical framing. Moreover, the police are again weirdly grammatically absent as actors. We’ll take this in parts.

“Ryan Colaço was arrested twice in six days by police in England.” Passive voice. The police did the arresting, but Ryan Colaço “was arrested,” a phrasing which, on the one hand, names and puts the focus on Ryan Colaço, but which also makes the police action less clear. Consider, instead, “Police in England arrested Ryan Colaço twice in six days.” Ryan Colaço is still the major focus as the only identified individual, but the actions are clearly attached to the actors.

The second part of the sentence continues in passive voice: “…after he was wrongly accused of concealing drugs in May.” This phrasing is especially awkward because of the phrase “concealing drugs in May,” which, while unlikely to be misunderstood, suggests that Ryan was accused of concealing drugs within the concept of time itself.

Rephrasing would not only make this sentence clearer, it would more accurately reflect the true dynamics of the interaction. Civilians do not have much power in interactions with the police, regardless of rights, because the police are armed, multiple, and afforded rights the average citizen lacks, as well as presumed by the legal system to be acting in good faith and public interest. I, an average citizen, cannot detain another citizen without consequence, although I’m a white woman, so I might have an easier time than some of my fellow citizens. The point is not just that the police are the actors, but that the fact that they are actors matters to this story because of their societal power.

By rephrasing the whole sentence to make it active voice, we could have something like “Police in England arrested Ryan Colaço twice in six days after wrongfully accusing him in May of concealing drugs.” Grammar here actually matters: the police are the actors, and the active phrasing shows that there is intent and repetition in their actions. They have the power to make arrests and they use it wrongfully, and repeatedly. The fact that this is happening in England is also significant. The movement for Black lives is necessarily global because anti-Blackness is global. I’m based in the United States, a site of historically massive anti-Blackness, but the United States is not alone in that historical positioning.

The second sentence is long and tries to collapse a great deal of information into a small space. “A new Guardian article reveals what officers didn’t know at the time of Colaço’s second arrest was that he was travelling home from an TV interview, where he spoke about his experiences with racism and the police.”

Let’s start with the source: “A new [Guardian] article reveals…” This is actually a nice attempt at citation. The primary information in the Twitter Moment comes from a Guardian article, so it is credited upfront.

The officers are a major focus of this sentence, introduced as subjects. But I personally find it a little odd that it’s framed around what officers “didn’t know.” The point of what Mr. Colaço has shared is that he was arrested twice in six days without committing a crime, and there is an irony to the fact that the second time happened immediately following an interview about the first time. But that officers didn’t know he’d just done an interview is irrelevant. What is significant is what they did know and what they did.

It wouldn’t be better if officers violently arrested a Black man who hadn’t been interviewed by television journalists. It is unnerving to suggest that if only they’d known, they might have refrained; that, in other words, the only protection a Black man can have from the police is their fear of exposure in white-dominated respectability culture. While this may well be true, the sentence, perhaps unintentionally, endorses this by framing itself not around their actions, but their knowledge.

And finally, let’s look at the euphemistic phrasing in the last part of the sentence. About what was Ryan Colaço giving a(n) TV interview? Why, “his experiences with racism and the police.” The framing that I disliked about not knowing came directly from the Guardian article that the Twitter moment cites, but the Guardian article phrases it rather differently. Here is the Guardian: “When an officer smashed in the window of Ryan Colaço’s car, after he was wrongly accused of concealing drugs, they did not know he was driving home from a TV interview in which he told of institutional racism in the police after being stopped and searched the week before.”

This is a far better sentence. Rather than suggesting that Colaço has had some “experiences” with racism, the Guardian piece, written by Mattha Busby, directly confronts the “institutional racism in the police.” Additionally, because the sentence starts with an officer and his violence against Mr. Colaço, the lack of knowledge is not framed as the main problem, but rather as part of an institutional problem in which media exposure is the only and often failed protection against a corrupt force.

What are “experiences with racism”? I’ve had experiences with racism as a white person, but that doesn’t mean I’ve had racism directed against me. This is a vague term, one that avoids conflict and certainly avoids naming the police as racist actors, even though the entirety of this story is about racist police actions as an institutional problem at a time when increased scrutiny of police by white-owned media is at a high thanks to pressure from Black activists.

This is how language obscures. This series will no doubt become somewhat repetitive, but that is the point: media frames news and when the language media uses obscures, and when that obfuscation is repeated, we live in a world that hides white supremacy in plain sight.

If there is a text you wish me to analyze for a future column, please let me know.

Little King Trashmouth