The selective doubt of white folks: why black experiences don’t matter
White people spend a lot of time telling black folks what their stories mean. If it’s not white writers insisting that they can tell a person of color’s story better than a black writer can, or Trump running mate Mike Pence telling black people that they talk about systemic racism too much, or Iowa Congressman Steve King telling Colin Kaepernick what his protest against police brutality “really means,” or folks who insist that “slavery wasn’t that bad,” there’s no shortage of white folks who insist that they know better than black folks when it comes to interpreting what happens to black bodies. It would be tempting to dismiss it all as the ravings of a minority of kooks if it weren’t for the ubiquity of the phenomenon. Everywhere, it seems, white people just can’t help themselves.
The whole point of documenting encounters between police officers and black civilians on film was that America would be presented with the truth about what had previously occurred in the dark. In video after video, black people are stopped by police — often for purely accidental reasons — and at the end of the encounter, a black person lies dead. In the past, without video proof, police have been able to argue that they were provoked into shooting and had no choice but to use deadly force. And yet, even with the most recent videos in the case of Terence Crutcher near Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, white people insist that black people are not telling the story right. The Crutcher and Scott cases are symptoms of a larger issue in which white people arrogate the very right of black people to own their own experiences. And while many white people may insist that they are not racist because they don’t use racial slurs or they listen to rap music, they also don’t hesitate to explain to black people that “that’s not the way it happened.” And, absent a video, they will even tell a writer of color that his experience is not valid because they have not shared it themselves. The comments of newspapers are full of these folks.
Last week, a 15-year old — by legal definition, still a child — ran through an intersection on her bike, hit a car, and in the collision, according to witnesses was knocked unconscious. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of concussion include confusion, disorientation, and irritability. When Hagerstown police encountered the concussed girl, she panicked; they shoved her in the back of a police car and pepper sprayed her in the face. While a lot of people who watched the video felt revulsion at the police actions, the Hagerstown police chief said that his officers behaved correctly. In the articles that reported on the incident, despite having watched the video, commenters offered their thoughts on the victim’s injuries and treatment:
Not recognizing unlawful behavior and even condoning it is the real issue. You can’t just act however the hell you want and then blame the police. Stop breaking the law, then there’s no story to talk about.
What happened to doing what an authority says and then dealing with the issue later. I am appalled at the 15 yr girls actions and her disrespect, not to mention her un truths.
She is not some young innocent child. She is an entitled brat who hit a car and is a coward who did not want to face consequences from her parents or the police. She got exactly what she deserved given her actions. The officers behaved professionally and with restraint given that she tried to run, struck the police and failed to obey a single lawful order. The police are not punching bags. The recent abuse by SOME police officers does not justify this woman’s actions at all. I bet the next time her bike or weed are taken, she will be the first to want the police to come to her aid. She is a little ratchet hood rat.
Chris Lebron wrote a searing piece for the Times Monday in which he asks a simple question: as a black man, will he live as long as he intends? Or will a random act of police violence cut him down the way that plague and other diseases used to wipe out young adults in bygone eras? He writes:
Yet, I am certain as I can be without personally knowing this man that he thought a death like the one that befell him was in the realm of the possible for him — because Terence Crutcher was black in America, which happened to be the same condition shared by Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and hundreds of other black Americans killed by employees of the state in the past few years. They all shared that condition, terribly minimal and tragically sufficient — blackness. None of them were permitted by the state to pursue to the fullest a reasonable plan of life.
Once again, tone-deaf commenters were not interested in engaging his prose; they were too busy asserting how they knew better about Lebron’s experiences.
So, the country should take the roughly 10 incidents that have occurred nationally in the last 5 years, and that’s the end of the story? I wonder how many other deaths have occurred from different ethnic groups that received zero attention. All lives matter, in every case, there are escalating events that occur why the situation occured. It never comes out until later and is rarely reported with the same vigor as the original incident.
The sense of victimization by this as express by a proxy for the Black community coupled with the idea that ones success in life should be outsourced to politicians, activists, and government programs pervades this defeatist lines of thinking.
This article could go on for days with examples of articles written by black people or about black people relating black experience in which white people barge into the comments to explain to others how the writer is “wrong.” Or doesn’t have their facts straight. As a white woman, I’m conscious of my own role in writing this article, although I’m not trying to analyze the words of black writers so much as I am attempting to define what is happening with white commentators.
For feminists, some of the behavior is familiar. In 2007, Rebecca Solnit related her experience of being at a gathering where she met a man who wanted to impress Solnit with his knowledge of a subject. Solnit attempted to participate in the conversation, but the man kept speaking over her. He insisted on telling her about this book that he had claimed to have just read, which now made him an expert on the subject. When Solnit was finally able to get a word in edgewise, she was able to reveal to the man that she was the author of the book that he had been busy “explaining” to her; furthermore, it turned out that the man hadn’t read the book at all. He had read a review of the book, and was basing all of his “knowledge” on that review. Solnit used this experience to reflect on the fact that having a subject explained to her by a man that she knew more about was a common experience in her life, and it turned out, was a common experience in a lot of her friends’ lives, too. From that article, the term “mansplaining” was coined.
In looking at the white responses to black experiences, it’s apparent that some version of “whitesplaining” is taking place in these comments. In whitesplaining, white people speak over black people’s experiences of racism to explain to them how they have gotten racism “wrong,” or how their perceptions of what was happening to them was incorrect. It’s the “yes, but” response. In many cases, white people may not even intend their remarks to be racist: it’s possible that people feel they’re being helpful when they offer the “yes, but” argument when a black man tells them about his encounter with police, but it’s still an act of arrogance to tell someone what happened to them, especially when the white person explaining the act of racism has no first-hand knowledge of that type of experience.
One of the most common comments one will find in response to articles about police shootings is the idea that a black person “just needs to do what they’re told.” It doesn’t seem to matter how many videos are released of black men with their hands raised, or laying down on the pavement, or with their hands behind their backs, or with their hands on their cars: despite their compliant actions, they still end up being shot by police. Either white people are not believing what they are seeing or they’re simply not watching the videos at all. For them, these types of things do not happen in their worlds. A white man being pulled over for speeding on I-5 or Rte. 2 is not dragged from his car and shot. It has never happened to him. It has never happened to anyone he knows. Therefore, he surmises, it has never happened.
There are two at least logical fallacies with that type of argument. The first is that if that white man does not have any black acquaintances, then his pool of people’s experiences are limited from which to draw, but even if that is true, it also points to an inability to pay attention. When I was a graduate student in an Ivy League program, for instance, I knew two black men in my field: one from New England and the other from California. In the time I was in graduate school, both of them had guns drawn on them by police. The first was driving in a car, was pulled over, and because his work satchel was next to him on the bench seat of his car, he was ordered to exit his vehicle because the cop was convinced it was hiding a gun. The second was a friend who was smoking on the stoop of his own building. The police showed up because a new neighbor reported a “suspicious black man” on the front porch of the building across the street. My point in repeating these stories is not to make myself special. It is to simply to say that white people who claim that they’ve never heard of this type of thing ever happening are simply not listening to what is going on around them.
But imagine living in a world where one believes that if one hasn’t experienced it, it hasn’t happened. In addition to throwing us back to basic epistemological arguments (such as those of J.S. Mill) or going back to the ancient Greeks — those that say “how can I know what I know?” — it puts us in a world where everyone’s world is defined by only what the eye can see. And yet, those same folks who doubt a black man’s account of his run-in with police are willing to believe any number of things that they are not witness to. For some, it’s the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. For others, it’s the belief that the earth rotates around the sun. And clearly, they are willing to believe what they did not see, because their default position is to believe the police account of what happened when a police officer encountered a black body. So, if they are willing to believe the word of many people about their experiences, but they question the word of the black community or a black man or woman after their encounters with police, what possible explanation is there for that selective doubt?
Another reason exists for racist reticence to believe the evidence that white people are presented with. In an article written by New York University professor Nicholas Mirzoeff, video of black men being shot to death by police becomes just another form of “data” that can be manipulated by the rise of the “New Jim Crow” media. (The term “New Jim Crow” refers to the work of Michelle Alexander, who has documented how mass incarceration has taken the place of many of the “old” Jim Crow laws in creating two tiers of citizenship in the United States.) While many of us would think that the facts represented by a video of a police officer shooting an unarmed black man are incontrovertible, in New Jim Crow media outlets such as Breitbart and others, those videos can be manipulated so that even the most compliant of victims can be seen to have raised a hand or resisted arrest in some way. That’s why you can have commenters with bizarre and complex narratives in which victims like Terence Crutcher suddenly become PCP-crazed assassins who needed to be “put down.”
The videos are being used to create new meaning, and for those whites who are looking for justification for not having to doubt their faith in law enforcement, or who want to believe that every good thing that has happened to them in their lives is due to “hard work” rather than a combination of fortune, accident, being born with white skin, and yes, hard work, the existence of videos that now present a counter-narrative allow them to dismiss black people’s own experiences as “biased.”
The New Jim Crow media is continuing the legacy of Jim Crow. Jim Crow not only sought to make black people second-class citizens, it also created apartheid. Segregation made sure that the only contact that black and white people had was in the daily experience of servitude — black people waited on white people in their homes or clubs, restaurants, etc., but they did not share “facilities” with white people as equals. At night, black people returned to their neighborhoods. Black people and white people lived separate existences. They were practically members of different nations. Reading the comments on the articles is like reading the comments of foreigners who have no idea what language the authors of the articles are speaking. The difference is, Jim Crow is supposed to be over. And yet, the experiences related in the articles and the comments in response to them present evidence that we still live in two Americas.
The video camera, the dash cam, the body cam, the cell phone camera, and the internet were all supposed to give us the tools to document the “truth.” But what do you do if, before the facts can get out there, those who are committed to the white power status quo have figured out how to convince frightened white eyes to see what they want to see? What do you do if, despite the words of one of the age’s greatest poets, multitudes have stoppered their ears for fear that they’ll have to admit that they are part of the racist system they themselves benefit from?
And what of those white people who do believe that black men are dying because of systemic racism? Where are they? Albert Camus, the French writer and Nobel Literature Prize winner, once essentially told an audience of Christians that if they stopped acting like moral scolds and more like Christians, they could prevent the deaths of millions of children. Black people are not asking white people to save them; nobody needs a white savior. There are things that white people can do in support of Black Lives Matter that does not involve becoming a spokesperson for the organization. But white people can speak up against white racism when they hear it. They can write comments against other comments that blame black people for violence or crime. And if that’s too much for some white people, perhaps they can start with the most simple: Listen to what black people are saying about their own experiences.