Calling All White People, Part 35
(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)
By An Average White Guy
TODAY’S EPISODE: We need to examine why we share pictures of dead or abused Black and brown people
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]
I rarely watch the videos that make the rounds of the internet, in which a Black or brown person is verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, threatened with weapons or outright shot to death. There are times I cannot avoid the images because there is no warning. There are times I merely glance at a few seconds willingly because I feel I need some context to understand the written story about the incident. There are times I might watch the video with the sound off.
But mostly, I don’t watch them at all.
And this isn’t a situation of me burying my head in the sand. Back in the days of the Trayvon Martin killing and the senseless murder of Tamir Rice I would watch the videos because I felt it was a duty to do so. To force myself to see just how bad people could be, especially law enforcement officers dealing with Black people who posed no threat but were treated like the vilest of evildoers. I watched the Tamir Rice video just to understand how aggressive the police were, how unwarranted their response was and just how impossibly little time they gave Tamir to even respond to them (a literal second or two) before they opened fire. I’ve seen videos of Black kids being pinned to the ground violently when they weren’t resisting and had done nothing wrong but have the police called on them for existing. And more.
There was a time going back to that watershed moment of Trayvon’s death when many white people like me had to see the brutality to understand it fully. To really realize that the police were even less fair and equitable to Black and brown people compared to white people than we had ever imagined. To understand how senseless an act of violence could be and how obviously wrong it could be—and yet still see police and average citizens alike (but especially police) found not guilty by juries.
But how much do you need to see? And how much do you need to share? And why?
Very recently, a photo appeared in news stories and got spread around the internet of a Latinx father and his very young daughter face down in the Rio Grande, drowned. And it was a stark image. And one that many of us were confronted with on absolutely no warning and not having gone looking for it.
And part of me gets it—both the taking of the photo and the sharing of it. Photographers often capture images because they are stark or even shocking. Because they seem to encapsulate a multitude of issues and concerns in one single scene that cannot be conveyed the same way in words. I’m not going to fault the photographers nor even cast dispersions on the media outlets who run these photos from AP and other sources (as long as they are providing some warnings). We’d probably be raking them over the coals if we found out they were refusing to show the horrors of Trump’s treatment of immigrants at the southern border (or police brutality or whatever).
But the part of me that gets it also gets something else: White people have been sharing and spreading images of horrors for ages now, even before the internet. Postcards of lynchings being one of the more infamous examples. Moreover, taking it to the current time, we’ve been sharing horrific images of Black people being killed or nearly killed by police for quite a number of years now and not only has nothing changed, but it’s gotten worse in many ways. Now we have more police with body cameras and we see even more images but we still almost never bring those police to justice when they do wrong. Now it almost seems like many law enforcement people are happy to have so many images out there, as if to say, “See? We can still get away with it. You’re screwed now and forever.”
Whether it’s a Black child being shot to death for playing in a park or a dead immigrant father and child in a river who represent victims of very obvious American government abuse (we have concentrations camps for children, people…what more do you need to know?), what are we doing when we spread the images far and wide?
I fear that we don’t do much at all.
We desensitize ourselves in many cases. We sometimes demoralize folks by showing how little changes and will perhaps never change. We embolden the people who like to see such images and praise the violence.
I’m not saying we should ban the images. There needs to be a record of abuse and there needs to be a way for people who don’t understand the scope of abuse and racist policies to see it up close and personal, as it were.
But the thing is, with our internet-connected world, we can find these images on our own. That’s the power of Google. I don’t think we need them shoved in our faces anymore. I don’t think we need Twitter or Facebook posts that blast a video or photo right at us without giving a chance to look away. No warnings in many cases: Just the raw horror dumped in our laps.
And the thing is, I’m not saying this to protect white people. I’m not saying “Please stop making us white people see this.” Because the thing is I don’t see nearly as many white people in my circles complaining about this as I do people of color, particularly Black and brown people. They live these horrors daily in many cases, because they know they have targets on their backs societally speaking in the United States and many, many other parts of the white world.
I’ve seen more white people rush to the defense of “We have to see these images to move people and to understand the horror” than Black people. I’ve seen more Black people say “Please stop showing me this” than I have white people.
That said, I will admit that I’ve seen Black and brown people insist that we have to see the horrors. It’s not like Black people or other people of color are monolithic groups with a single opinion.
So what is the answer?
Well, I’d say (as I did before) that the answer isn’t to delete all these images or to never record them to begin with. And the answer isn’t to never share them.
But I would say ask yourself why you are sharing them. Is it because it makes you feel like you are doing something (when you probably should be doing something more direct)? Is it because it’s become a form of torture porn? Is it because you want to change the minds of wishy-washy moderates who don’t want to rock the boat (you probably won’t) or Trump supporters (with those people, they probably smile when seeing those images) who you think can be turned?
Bottom line: We need to stop being so aggressive with forcing people to see these images. Try some trigger warning or content warning messages if you must share. Try providing links (with warnings) instead of automatically embedding a video or photo in your post.
What we need to do is look less (being bystanders and hand-wringers) and do more (by tearing down white supremacy and white nationalism). Images have motivated people and have turned the tide of public opinion in the past, but we aren’t in the same world as, say, the 1960s/1970s and the Vietnam War, when there were only a relative handful of media outlets and no internet. We are in a time of a fascism-fueled White House committing overt acts of evil and lying daily without shame—so much that every new sin is forgotten the next day by a new sin and so on and so on and so on…
The fact is, most of us who don’t want the world to be this way and to treat Black and brown people as less than human already know the score. It’s just that many/most of us are afraid to confront the problem directly or put ourselves on the line. There’s nothing subversive, bold or game-changing about sharing images of what increasingly amounts to trauma porn. The images have a place and a role, but they aren’t the answer to social change.
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