To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.
— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of discourse around race, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. This is at least partially due to the recent slew of highly publicized acts of racial violence by police officers against people of color, specifically black people. As a young college student who grew up in a (predominantly white) wealthy liberal environment, most of my social media friends and acquaintances are people like myself. Among this demographic, I’ve noticed a trend in responses to racial incidents, which often take the tone of a personal denouncement, or perhaps a lack of faith in the criminal justice system.
I am suspicious of this discourse for the simple reason I do not find it effective. Any sort of proclamation made on social media is made for the purpose of being seen, to cast oneself in a certain light. With regard to race, these posts differentiate between the senseless violence of the other and the sensible love and respect of oneself. It seems that these posts are made publicly in order announce the poster’s goodness, the vast distance between the world they inhabit and the world in which Michael Brown is shot for shoplifting, where Tamir Rice, a young black boy, is shot merely for playing with a toy gun on the playground. But these statements function as a sort of absolution.
Several examples come to mind. When I was five, I answered the door for my mother. Opening the door, I saw a black man, and ran to tell my mother, shouting that there was a black man at the door. My mother, who worked (and still works for) the county’s fair housing agency, was mortified. In my high school literature class, my teacher, a friendly white guy, told us that if we saw black men late at night, we should cross the street. Often, people would make jokes about the dangers of going into the poorer, predominantly Black or Latino areas near where I grew up. But I knew there were words I shouldn’t say; I learned about the Trail of Tears in my history classes; I knew that Jim Crow and the KKK were bad. However, that was as far as my thoughts on race went.
Oftentimes, we share more in common with the perpetrators than we think. For the several months between the murder of Michael Brown and the announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, I grappled with the issue of race. This was also the beginning of my college career and my introduction to critical thinking. As most of my information about Ferguson was mediated through Facebook, I saw a range of opinions, but the most frequent response was sharply critical of the way the case was being handled. How, I read over and over, could this happen? During this span of time, I reflected on these issues. For anyone plugged in to mass media, it was hard not to. But I could not figure out what position I occupied. I couldn’t make sense of how I was connected to this issue.
While reading an essay on social relations, I had a realization. While I found what Officer Darren Wilson did terrible, I understood how a police officer with a weapon, a man with both the physical power of a deadly weapon and a mantle of authority, could be afraid of an unarmed black man. After all, although I had been educated, even though my mother worked to try and eradicate racism, I still had those same views. I crossed the street at night when I saw a black man. The problem was not that it didn’t make sense, but that in my world, in Darren Wilson’s world, black men are dangerous, are to be feared.
In a lecture titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore”, the poet Roger Reeves points out the way in which linking the video of, for example, Eric Garner being choked to death reproduces and commodifies violence against people of color. In a similar way, these declamations against the terrible injustices committed by ‘other people’ turn these events into opportunities to prove moral superiority, spectacles of goodness. But in order to turn these tragedies into action, a greater intimacy is required, an intimacy with the ways in which society has structured our perspectives of the world, has rendered fear and violence sensible. As a white man, I have been presented with a world where I am the hero of every story; my innate morality need only be asserted to be true. But in order to challenge the systems of power which validate that narrative–the same systems that allow violence against people of color to be defensible–we must examine our own complicity with these acts.
This is not to reduce people of color to their traumas. A couple months after I had this epiphany, I was given James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for Christmas, which provide a framework for, or a window into, a life foreign to me. In this beautiful essay, a reflection on his life, Baldwin considers the complexity of African-American culture, the terrible beauty of the blues which occupy neither joy nor despair, but a sort of celebration of life, of the sensuality which only comes from the relationship people of color are forced to have with themselves. White people, according to Baldwin, can’t sing the blues because of the historical attitudes that interpose between an individual and the world. So I suppose that, while I may be unable to sing the blues, I must learn to listen to its nuances. To hum along.
[Photo courtesy of Madison Ryan, Redlands Bulldog photographer]