Last night, I made the abominable mistake of reading the comments under Fox News’ Facebook page’s post of the alleged Mike Brown “strong-arm robbery” video. What I read was altogether infuriating and heartbreaking, yet I could not stop reading. Many of the comments, by what appeared to be “average white Americans,” were seething, sarcastic, racist, and steeped in hate. They called Mike Brown a “thug” and spoke about his killing in a bizarre celebratory way―some implicitly and others explicitly expressing how the video justifies his murder. Some of the comments even unnecessarily brought up Trayvon Martin, also speaking about him in the most derogatory and disparagingly of ways. These white Facebook users were so quick to dehumanize, demonize, generalize, speak hatefully, and justify the death of a young black man―in rhetoric oozing with racism, white supremacy, and white privilege―that I began to wonder if they were able to acknowledge that Mike Brown was a human. How and why do they hate him so much?
It made me sick to my stomach.
I think the part that was most troubling to me was the fact that most of these white people making these horrendous comments were not the anonymous, faceless, cowardly, racist internet trolls that I often encounter on Twitter―though enraging, I can somehow shrug them off as “fake.” These people had faces, rather. These folks were seemingly real people, behind seemingly real Facebook accounts―some of their profile pictures were family pictures or pictures of them with their kids, even lovingly embracing them. I imagine they are people who have authentic, caring relationships with individuals who they choose to love deeply―friends, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, grandmothers, grandfathers. But the hatred they verbally spewed for a dead black teenager they do not even know, and the dehumanizing nature of their discourse, led me to begin to see them void of humanity―their dehumanization of Mike Brown was the cause of my dehumanization of them. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s truly ugly.
Of course, those types of comments aren’t representative of the feelings of every white American, yet, at the same time, those types of comments are not unique to that one Facebook post―I am, unfortunately, confronted by them more often than not. Racist, right-wing, conservative, white Americans’ responses to incidents like the murder of Mike Brown, others like him, and all related events, can be overwhelmingly disheartening, but at the same time, they serve as an important reminder. Those types of racist responses to tragic situations like this are perfect examples of the racism and implicit bias within individuals that ends up causing these very situations to happen in the very first place. And in the aftermath of these tragic events, instead of acknowledging the role that white supremacy, implicit bias, and systemic racism played, those people opposingly retort with the attempted denial of those systems and come with other biased comments intended to detract from the reality of the situation.
“What about Chicago? Why aren’t you angry about that?”
“What about black-on-black violence?”
“We have a black president! We live in Post-racial America.”
“Speaking about racism is what perpetuates racism.”
“This is not about race. I’ve been a victim of police brutality too.”
“Black, white, brown, purple, green, blue, yellow―I don’t see color. We all bleed red.”
“Well, he shouldn’t have fought with a police officer if he didn’t want to die.”
“He shouldn’t have [dressed that way, walked that way, talked that way, listened to that music]!”
“White people are murder victims too!”
“Black people kill white people!”
“YOU’RE the racist one!”
“You hate white people!”
Now, these also are certainly not the only types of responses of white Americans, but they do, in fact, tend to fall into two of the four theoretical, generalized categories I created of “Types of White People Who Comment on Black Experience and Pain.”
But before I get into that, I feel it is important to explain what I mean when I reference “white supremacy.”
Many people see white supremacy as something that is exclusive to white extremist groups like the KKK and Skinheads, but it is much more than that. White supremacy is defined as “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” Some people are conscious of this belief, whilst others are unaware that it subconsciously guides their interactions with others and the world at large. White supremacy is an institutionalized system of domination, and America was founded on its principles. It is weaved into the very fabric of American society―it’s as American as apple pie. White supremacy still greatly controls much of the way our country works, both inwardly and outwardly, in thoughts, attitudes, biases, prejudices, and policies, and in societal structures, social interactions, hierarchies, speech, and action.
Many white people become defensive and angered when I say that, but this is not up for dispute. It is a fact that America, as we know it, was established on the slaughter of indigenous people, and built on the backs of black slaves―both groups who were, by definition of the law, not seen as equal, not seen as human. Neither the deep-rooted indoctrination of white supremacy―within all races of people―nor the social ills connected to white supremacist structures, laws, policies, geographic communities, poverty, inequalities and other injustices have been completely eradicated. They most definitely did not “end with slavery,” as some would like to believe. Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, speaks about the legacy of slavery and the connection to current social injustices and inequalities,
“The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Much of that has been achieved through targeted prosecutions of people of color. The Bureau of Justice reports that 1 in 3 black male babies born in 2001 are expected to go to jail or prison. There are states and communities where 50, 60% of young men of color are in jail, in prison, on probation, or parole. Many of these young people have not committed violent crimes or done anything serious. They’re there for drug crimes or for property crimes. And many are innocent there because of what I call this ‘presumption of guilt.’
And I think we have to understand that these phenomena reflect a larger failure in American society to deal with the history of racial inequality and racial injustice. I mean, this country is burdened with the legacy of slavery―we enslaved Africans for over two centuries. From the end of Reconstruction to World War II, we terrorized and traumatized black people in America with lynchings and violence and racial hatred. Then we legalized racial subordination through our laws and created Jim Crow―segregation that was deeply humiliating and demonizing. And because we never told the truth about all of those problems and all of the difficulties that created, we’ve never had the moment of truth and reconciliation that every country requires if it is going to deal with decades of human rights abuses.”
Some white people are aware of white supremacy and its impacts on us individually and socially. They can see that we do not live in isolation―from each other or our shared history. However, there are other white people who seem to not feel any sense of responsibility for the atrocities that happened in the past, even if those very atrocities are what have afforded them the privilege in which they now live. The latter group continues to deny systemic racism and the role it plays in the black American experience; which brings me back to the four categories of “Types of White People Who Comment on Black Experience and Pain.” These four categories are: Overtly Racist White People, White-Privilege Apologists, “Well-Meaning” White People, and Conscious White People. These categories are neither an exhaustive list of every representation of white people who comment on black pain and experience, nor are they static, as some people fluidly move in and out of categories, and some categories share characteristics. They are merely my observations in watching white America’s spectrum of different responses to the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till, and the list unfortunately goes on.
“Types of White People Who Comment on Black Experience and Pain.”
Overtly Racist White People are, at the very least, the easiest to deal with, in the sense that they are completely transparent and upfront about their racism―you know exactly where they stand. These white people range from members of openly racist extremist groups like the KKK, to “average” individuals who say and act in explicit racism. In situations like the death of Mike Brown, Overtly Racist White People are known to use blatantly racist rhetoric (including, but not limited to the use of race-based derogatory terminology and racial slurs), speak about the death in a way that seems celebratory, speak hatefully about the black victim and black people in general, speak with an heir of superiority, possess the idea that they truly are better than black people and people of other races, deny that racism played a role in his death or that racism even exists, and/or claim “reverse racism” (which shows white supremacist indoctrination with the ignorant insinuation, embedded within the term, that white people have the monopoly on racism, and racism is white against another race by default), among other terrible things. Some of the more cowardly individuals of this group―known as Internet trolls―hide behind the anonymity of fake social media accounts, harassing, baiting, and insulting people opposed to their white supremacist beliefs.
White-Privilege Apologists seem less aware of their racism and white supremacist indoctrination, and, unlike Overtly Racist White People, they rarely own-up to their racist beliefs and actions. They would not consider themselves racist. When I say, “White-Privilege Apologists,” I’m referring to people who epitomize and embody white privilege whilst denying that it exists, and therefore, in turn, they unintentionally defend and perpetuate its very existence. These individuals are so blinded by their own privilege, they find it difficult to see or hear the experience, pain, and plight of people from other races. They are known to use the phrase, “I’m not racist, but…” prefacing an extremely racist statement, and to tell racist jokes when they find themselves within racially homogeneous groups, which is very often. In situations like the death of Mike Brown, White-Privilege Apologists are some of the first to mention Chicago, “black-on-black violence,” and the fact that “we have a black president” (though Overtly Racist White People also use that rhetoric), they refuse to admit racism played a role in his death, they express ideals of “colorblindness” and a pseudo-equality (“we are all the same”) discourse that is far-removed from reality, and they often become defensive when racism is mentioned, whether on the broader societal level or narrower individual level. Though they might not openly say it, it seems that this category of white people see themselves as superior to people of color, whether it is on a conscious or subconscious level.
“Well-Meaning” White People have seemingly good intentions and try very hard to be “down.” This, unfortunately, often comes off as awkward and they are unaware of the covert, and sometimes overt, racism that they display. Most “Well-Meaning” White People will admit that racism and white privilege exists and is a problem, but maybe aren’t fully aware of how to address the topic or reality. One cause of the disconnect might be because this category of white people often get their information about black people and the black experience through books, music, movies, television shows, and stereotypes, rather than from genuine relationships with people of color that go beyond tokenism―not including a black acquaintance, coworker, employee, or someone who works in their home. They are known to gawkily force evidence of their “knowledge of black culture” into conversations with black people and reference “my black friend.” Some of these individuals feel it is acceptable for them to use the n-word, “ebonics” (now referred to as American Black English), and other words and phrases popular in the black colloquial vernacular.
Some “Well-Meaning” White People embody what Teju Cole termed the White Savior Industrial Complex, which, whether intentional or not, positions them in the place to be the “savior” of (often poor) black people (this is frequently found in and amongst the white church, missionaries, some white teachers in “urban” schools, etc). In situations like the death of Mike Brown, “Well-Meaning” White People usually try to speak out against the injustice but sometimes overstep their bounds, they speak as “experts on black experience” without the actual experience, they awkwardly share times when they were confronted with police brutality as an effort of solidarity (unable to see how their stories do not compare with the consistent, and disproportionate number of accounts of police brutality experienced by people of color, not to mention other forms and experiences of discrimination they face on a daily basis), and sometimes they (possibly unintentionally) hijack the narratives of people of color and voice them as their own experiences and/or thoughts. It would seem that the intentions of “Well-Meaning” White People are good, but their execution is often suspect and inappropriate.
Conscious White People actually “get it,” as much as a white person is able to. They are aware of the various degrees of white supremacy and racism within us all, and within our society. They have committed to going through the continuous process of acknowledging their own privilege (and, for some, intersections of it), checking their own prejudices and biases, and are dedicated to fighting white supremacy within and around them. Most of this category’s knowledge of the black experience is based in authentic, loving relationships with people of color, spending their time listening to and learning from the actual voices living the black experience―also aware that no one individual represents an entire race of people. Conscious White People usually know when to listen, and when to speak. Though they might not fully understand the experience and pain of people of color, they, at the very least, try to. In situations like the death of Mike Brown, Conscious White People are committed to seeking justice, actively call out systemic racism, white supremacy, and white privilege, value and validate (in a way that is not patronizing) the voices of people of color and allow them to determine the trajectory of the narrative, realize that white-on-black racism is not a “black problem” but rather it is a white problem and see responsibility in combating it, and commit to calling out racism and white supremacy in other white people around them. These white people are, of course, not perfect, but they are also usually open to the constructive criticism and feedback of others.
At various points in life, I have been in and out of several of those categories. If you find yourself becoming angry about “finding yourself” in a category you feel is unfair, I ask you to take a step back and really challenge why it bothers you. Is it because it’s true?
Gladly admitting the danger in rash generalizations, I can generally determine the approximate quantity and quality of relationships with people of color a white person has based on their reactions to incidents like Michael Brown’s killing. And I’m referring to relationships that go beyond tokenism―not “my black friend,” or a coworker, or a domestic worker. Despite the fact that it is 2014, we still live extremely, racially segregated―both geographically and socially―for the most part. This segregation allows the perpetuation of racism and othering. Author, feminist, and activist bell hooks pointed out, “The world we grew up in has changed little when it comes to race. Segregation is still the norm in social relationships.” How can we truly understand the experience of other races of we don’t move outside of our homogeneous racial groups? This might not be the will of some who seek more diversity in their social relationships, but often they merely surrender to the lack of heterogeneity in their circles, and succumb to what bell hooks refers to as the “accident of circumstances,” of everyone around them looking the exact same.
Racial segregation in our geographic residential areas and social relationships enables the perpetuation of ignorant views of “the other.” Racial segregation in our geographic residential areas and social relationships enables the dehumanization that is necessary for racism. The average white people I have seen who deny the existence of white privilege or racism in America move exclusively in racially homogeneous circles. It is easy to deny something that in no way, shape, or form inconveniences your life. However, when we build quality relationships with people from another race, they can no longer be a generalized stereotype of a race. They are human, a human we care about deeply. The moment an issue negatively affects someone we care about, someone we truly love, that is when we are fully throttled into activism to seek change.
Unfortunately, there will be more Mike Browns, and there will be more Darren Wilsons. This is not an isolated incident―it’s a systemic problem. We can’t run and stop these individual tragedies from happening, but we can do our part to be aware and begin to affect broader social change. We have to find out where we fit into the equation, how we are either fighting against it or enabling it. White supremacy, white privilege, and systemic racism have led to the dehumanization of black people in America. Dehumanization allows a young black man to be a “suspect” or “thug” by default. Dehumanization allows a young black victim to be the cause of his or her own death. Dehumanization allows a group of―predominantly black―peaceful protesters to be seen as an “angry mob” or “rioters.” Dehumanization does not allow authentic, loving relationships to form. It’s time we see genuine, interracial relationship-building as a form of activism. It’s time we recognize the humanity within one another. And as it has been said, yes, we all bleed red, but it’s important to note whose blood is being spilled on the streets.
Rest in Peace, Mike Brown.