Stop Traumatizing Yourself Trying To Gain Sympathy From Racist White People
The phrase “Release the footage!” has morphed into somewhat of a collective rebuttal to the deflective retort, “Let’s wait for all the facts” — a card police apologists commonly pull when faced, yet again, with the fuzzy details surrounding the killing of an unarmed Black person at the hands of law enforcement. The only difference being that the contents of the video footage actually carry some weight to concerned African-American onlookers. The facts however, have proven to be completely irrelevant to racists. ‘
As I watched a preview for a docuseries chronicling the life and death of Trayvon Martin, I thought to myself, had Trayvon’s murder been caught on camera would we have called for that footage to be released too, the same way we did with Stephon Clark, Antwon Rose, Tamir Rice and the countless other Black men, women, and children who’ve lost their lives to state sanctioned violence? Would we hold out hope that seeing Trayvon’s death would stir up compassion in people who couldn’t see Trayvon’s humanity, even in life? Despite all evidence pointing to a carefully calculated defense plan at the hands of local law enforcement and city officials to protect a racist child-murderer, would we still hope that maybe, just maybe, seeing would be believing?
Would we pray that this footage be the last footage we’d need to convince our detractors of what we’ve known all along about law enforcement? And would we all watch it too, again and again, trying the case in our heads and crafting iron-clad defenses for cynics in the court of public opinion? Yes, we would. Because, despite seeing photos of Black men swinging by their throats while white families host picnics under their feet, we choose to hold out hope. Despite all the evidence, we choose to believe that the right amount of begging and blood will appeal to the sensibilities of racists. We want so badly to believe that literally seeing our pain will move people to compassion, that one day they’ll no longer delight in the loss of Black life. But history tells us that racism doesn’t make room for condolences, nor can racism be cured by appeals to the moral compass. Why? Because racism can only exist in the presence of moral absence. So while we’re exhausting our energy trying to petition the souls of the soulless, let us not forget who’s really impacted by videoed violence against Black bodies, we are.
Writer Anäis Nin once said “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”. No truer words have ever been spoken, especially as it relates to racism. Simply put, racism isn’t something the world can fix because racism is a job for racists. That doesn’t mean we stop making strides to expose and expunge racism within our institutions, but it does mean acknowledging that conversion therapy won’t do much to further these efforts. And that’s not because racists cannot change, it’s because racists cannot be changed by you and I, here’s why.
Despite constant correlation between the two, prejudice and racism are not one in the same. Prejudice, which is any preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience, is actually perfectly normal. Temporarily ignoring power dynamics, prejudice is a normal human response to physical, social, sexual and other forms of difference. Prejudices are formed unconsciously which means they can conflict with our conscious values and when they do, our conscious mind steps in and “checks them” so to speak. For example, I may be an HR manager who unconsciously believes that all Asians are naturally scholars. Now, when faced with the decision to hire a Hispanic candidate with 20 years of experience and a stellar track record or an Asian graduate with a babysitting background and 2.4 GPA, I can either rebut my ignorance and hire the better fit for the job or reinforce it through discriminatory hiring practices. This internal system of checks and balances keeps prejudices from becoming permanent fixtures and impacting our behavior as we interface with the world. In other words, prejudice alone does not constitute racism.
So what happens when unchallenged beliefs start to seep into our conscious mind? Well, a little something called Triadic Reciprocal Causation. Picture a triangle, at the top of that triangle are your beliefs, the bottom right corner houses your behaviors and the bottom left corner houses your experiences. Now meet Cathy, an imaginary white woman who believes that Black people are inherently dangerous. One day, she walks into a bank to speak with a teller. As she gets in line, two Black men enter the bank and stand behind her. Without provocation, Cathy assesses that she is in danger, clutching her purse tightly and repeatedly glancing over her shoulder to gauge the potential threat. But this odd behavior draws unwanted attention. The men behind her, as well as the rest of the bank customers, grow suspicious of Cathy who is now sweaty and pale in the face. They peer over at Cathy, who’s watching their every move through her peripheral vision, as their concerns grow. At this point, Cathy is in a heightened state of panic, sweating and breathing heavily as the line inches towards the teller. Cathy’s heart races as sweat beads form around the nape of her neck, she can feel the eyes on her as the panic sets in.
Noticing her obvious physical discomfort, one of the Black men behind her, a registered nurse, taps Cathy on the shoulder. “Ma’am, are you alright?” he asks, concerned that the panicked stranger may be dealing with some sort of health condition. “Get your goddamn hands off of me!” Cathy shrieks as she darts from the teller line and breaks towards the exit. Fumbling her keys and cell phone, Cathy can’t get to her car fast enough. Battling tears, Cathy dials 911 to report that she’s just been assaulted, a distorted version of reality that she created all by herself. Cathy is what happens when unconscious beliefs becomes conscious bias and conscious bias becomes racism. As her beliefs affected her behavior, her behavior shaped her experience and that experience reinforced her initial beliefs. The world can’t reprogram Cathy, it’s Cathy who must reprogram her view of the world. Racism isn’t reinforced by what you see, it’s reinforced by what you believe about what you see and this, ladies and gentleman, is why no amount of traumatic footage will cure racism.
We mean well, when we work our knuckles to the bone trying to point racists in the direction of the obvious, arguing back and forth about what differentiates resisting arrest from a physiological response to physical pain. But we fail to realize that our existence is resistance, therefore we could never be passive enough to warrant liberty in the eyes of racists like Cathy. Our existence is threatening, and not because we actually mean harm but because a racists’ world view wills it so. Meaning we are the only ones moved by repeatedly seeing ourselves violated, no one else. Racism isn’t accidental, nor is it fueled by simple cultural misunderstandings. Racism is a choice. And if you can choose to be racist, you have the ability to choose the alternative. I mean, the Civil War was literally a choose sides kind of ordeal, during which racists made their decisions crystal clear. And if there were ever a time when a shocking visual could have tugged at the heart strings of white supremacists, it should have been then. But it wasn’t the racist who was was forever changed by the sight of Black bodies swinging from branches like human wind chimes, it was us. Public displays of violence against black bodies have always been used as intimidation tactics for Black people, reminders that any one of us can be next. That motive has not changed.
Monnica Williams, Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, found that videos of violence against Black bodies, or vicarious trauma, in conjunction with lived experiences can create PTSD like psychological problems in Black men and women. And with a PTSD prevalence rate of 9.1 percent, repeated exposure to race-based trauma only exasperates our condition. Still, the shooting death of Philandro Castillo was shared over 5 million times. Millions of us shared the shocking footage of Alton Sterling taking his last breath. We reposted the murder of Terence Crutcher from ever angle imaginable. And for what, to sway public sympathies in our favor? If seeing a Black man tied to two horses and ripped limb from limb didn’t change the course of history for Black people, what difference will a couple bullets make? This isn’t to say our collective efforts and activism are in vain. Nor is it condemnation of our campaign to force feed racists our truth, as they’re completely undeserving of the peaceful bigotry they so desire. But our vindication should not come at the expense of our mental health, and if we find ourselves exacerbating our suffrage while trying to convince others of it’s legitimacy, then maybe it’s time we evaluated why their acknowledgment holds so much weight. In the meantime, do us all a favor and think twice before you hit share next time.