I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.
Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?
Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:
A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?
Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?
Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?
Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.
It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.
When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.
My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.
When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?
We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.
Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.
The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:
When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.
As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.
Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.
Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?
We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.