How We Learn To Love ‘Good’ White Men With Guns
Millions of Americans watched videos online last week which showed police officers being shot and killed in Dallas. The terrifying attack was carried out by a lone gunman who was apparently targeting “white officers.” In subsequent coverage of the violence, which resulted in the death of five people, many news outlets described the events of the night as “shocking.”
There’s no doubt that these videos stood out as such, given how many were moved to respond to the violence. The National Rifle Association made a statement honoring the “heroism” of the police, mainstream media outlets widely shared the sympathetic life stories of the officers killed, and a national outpouring of sorrow led some teachers to ask children to “wear blue” to school in remembrance of the victims.
When two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, died at the hands of the police earlier in the week, many of those same news outlets used the word “shocking” to describe that footage of violence. But it’s worth asking: Did these videos truly have that effect? The NRA didn’t make a statement then, mainstream media was less focused on championing the victims’ lives, and we didn’t see a similar national embrace of Black families. While there were certainly protests and even a Presidential response to the videos, they were not rooted in the same sense of appall.
It’s not difficult to discern why reactions to these violent episodes differed. We are not accustomed to watching the killing of police officers and white people, two groups for whom being indiscriminately murdered is statistically abnormal. In fact, the death of five officers in Dallas made it the deadliest day for police in the U.S. since September 11th . Conversely, as Ezekiel Ekewu wrote for MTV last week, grainy videos of Black people being killed by the police are not out of the ordinary in 2016. They are very much commonplace.
Indeed, Sterling and Castile join a long list of names — and montage of images — of Black people we’ve become familiar with as a result of viral videos capturing their final moments of life, videos which are played over and over again on our Facebook timelines and then again and again in our heads for weeks afterwards.
It’s much stranger for us to see white people in uniform — normally the ones holding the weapons — being directly attacked. A day before the attack in Dallas, another clip of a white man being shot, this time by the police themselves, also circulated online, though not quite as widely. The footage of 19-year-old Dylan Noble being killed in Fresno, while lying on the ground, was also described by some in the media as “shocking.” Yet perhaps because police were still holding the guns there, it didn’t quite shake us in the same way.
Generally, a white person being executed on camera is not a common sight on our Twitter feeds. But sniper attacks on police officers are rarer still, and thus particularly unsettling for many (even if we might be accustomed to such scenes in foreign countries).
This isn’t to say that intentional attacks on these groups never happen, but that they’re not images we’re used to seeing in America. In fact, while we are conditioned from very early on to view Black people in the context of criminality, rather than in the context of humanizing love or joy, we learn to see white men — and especially white men with guns — as the definition of American, and those most deserving of our empathy.
Clips of Black life dehumanized — dismissed and discarded by those in power — are mirrored by the images we commonly see of Black people in popular media. As others have pointed out, there’s a direct line from the videotaped murder of Sterling to the lynching postcards of the past, or to newspaper photographs of Emmett Till in 1954.
We also see echoes of these images in less overt ways every day. This includes the images on the biggest screen — Hollywood cinema — where we’re more likely to see Black people in distress, or creating distress, than we are to see them in joy, or expressing love (if, of course, we even see them at all).
A quick scan of the year’s most successful films proves as much, with only the occasional children’s film or Kevin Hart vehicle breaking through a sea of whiteness. This is not to say that Black people don’t appear in other top movies — including this year’s #1 live-action hit, Captain America: Civil War — but that they aren’t centered, and thus aren’t given the majority of our attention or empathy.
When we examine this further, it means Black people on camera are not often in situations which might explicitly counter the fear, danger, and violence of the recorded deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, or dozens of others the public has now witnessed.
In a 2011 study titled “Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys,” researchers found that more often than not, when we do see Black men in “positive” roles on screen, they still “tend to be associated with a relatively limited range of qualities, such as physical ability and/or entertainment skills.”
We’re more likely, in fact, to have in our memories an entire history of media images associating Black people with crime, violence, and demeaning pity, from Birth of a Nation to the Rodney King beating to Precious. These are the same associations which led people to wrongfully accuse a random Black man of being a suspect in the Dallas shooting and to “congratulate” a successful Black actress for being able to fly first class last month. And they’re why we so easily ignore the epidemic of violence against Black trans women.
That 2011 study of media representations concluded that “a consumer of most of American media can hardly help thinking of black males in terms of problems.” In her 2014 essay, writer Jade Davis went further, saying “the moment we see a black guy on our screen — any screen — we expect him to die.”
Meanwhile, images of white people in love — embracing, kissing, laughing together — are completely normalized. Search Google for “people in love” and it’s almost exclusively white couples. Every one of the entries on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies of all time list stars straight white people. This is so commonplace in our culture that it becomes ingrained in us from childhood — that love looks a certain way.
While it’s also true that white men are the majority of villains on screen — after all, they are the majority of everything on screen — the fact remains that nearly every popular hero throughout the history of cinema has been a straight white man. And that means we’ve been taught that not only are white men more likely to be deserving of love, but that they are more likely to have “good” intentions — more likely to want to protect us from harm.
We’ve been taught that white men are the solutions to our problems. In the AFI list of the 50 greatest movie heroes of all time, published in 2003, only one Black man was named — In the Heat of the Night’s Virgil Tibbs. In a 2012 list of the “100 Greatest Movie Characters,” voted by readers of Empire, only three Black men are listed, and no Black women made the cut.
Furthermore, the vast majority of the heroes on these lists are men like James Bond and Indiana Jones — those who use violence to keep us safe; who brandish weapons to serve and protect. Even when mainstream media does find Black heroes to celebrate — like Tibbs or Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield — they also tend to be straight men in uniform or defined by hyper-masculinity.
Military veteran Roy Scranton recently wrote an essay for The New York Times titled “Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence,” in which he discusses the mythic qualities our culture assigns to the military and “the story” we tell ourselves about this fascination with violence.
This is the predominant story of Hollywood: A good man with a gun is what protects us from “evil,” and his actions represent who we are as Americans. It’s one of our favorite narratives at the movies, from How the West Was Won to Guardians of the Galaxy. And even when the antagonists on screen are the police — which happens occasionally — the hero is typically another man who believes in violence as righteous justice. Thus we become extremely practiced in putting ourselves in the shoes of these types of men.
In this context, it makes sense that to see police officers attacked — especially by a shooter who is Black — scares us (especially if we are white), because it flips the popular and founding story of this country. It shocks our sense of security. To see a Black man in the same position, though, is far less likely to stir us. To see a police officer break down in tears after his colleague is killed, as we saw in Dallas, is more likely to cause many Americans to well up with emotion, than to see a 15-year-old Black boy, or his mother, break down on camera after the murder of Alton Sterling.
This is because we have been trained to feel extreme empathy for the men in blue, or any straight white man trying to “do good,” but have been asked to feel very little empathy for Black people, especially those being confronted by white men with guns.
In his essay, Scranton goes on to describe how, as a soldier in Iraq, he learned to view himself and the brown-skinned enemies he was attacking in the context of that Hollywood-American story:
“I was both caught up in that myth and released from it: I could see what ‘the work of peace’ really looked like, what American violence did to Iraqi homes and bodies, yet it remained my job to be an agent of that violence . . . ”
Cinema and popular media’s long history of such images — of lynchings, foreign wars, fire-hosing, beatings, police killings — collectively and overwhelmingly puts violent white people in the position of “hero” and people of color in the position of “enemy.”
In order to challenge a lifetime of learning to center white lives and seeing violence as good, we need to see — recondition ourselves with — images of Black people who are not just killing or being killed. We need to see a celebration of Black love on the biggest and smallest screens, too, including in white and other non-Black communities. We need more Lemonade, #CareFreeBlackKids2k16, and Timbuktu.
This doesn’t mean representations need to be perfect, or that they should avoid tragedy, but that Black people, especially women, deserve to be seen more often as just human — happy, angry, sad, and alive.
The distorted visuals of white supremacy not only teach non-black folks to see Black people in a fearful light, but affect Black people themselves — including children like four-year-old Dae’Anna, who sat calmly in the backseat of the car while her mother’s boyfriend Philando Castile was murdered. Children grow up learning a certain picture of criminality, violence, and heroism. They watch blockbusters, experience trauma, look in the mirror, and learn to associate some meaning with their skin color.
Cinema has an opportunity to show them truer reflections of their value. If media has played a role in telling the story of America — however flawed the current tale is — it can play a role in changing it, to move it away from the violence of the police and the military, and toward the love expressed by women like Dae’Anna’s mother , Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds.
If our films could tell more complete stories about Black women, we might one day create the context for all Americans to recognize that Reynolds was among the great heroes we saw on camera last week — a Black woman, without a gun or uniform, who had the courage to livestream her boyfriend’s death at the hands of the police, in the face of certain danger. She calmly brought the world’s attention to the injustice happening right next to her — taking action to make us all a bit safer.
Yet the fact that some still viewed her with suspicion, questioning her motives in that harrowing moment with the police, is evidence enough of how much reeducation is needed. It’s a reminder of how deeply ingrained the story of heroic white American violence, and “good guys with guns,” is embedded in our minds — and how often it is retold.
Lead image: Pixabay