“Invoking this hypothetical shared experience (“we are seeing with you the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses”), Woolf professes to believe that the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will. Does it?”–Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Susan Sontag relates Virginia’s Woolf reaction to photographs of the dead in War; both Woolf and Sontag discuss the “we”–who are we who regard images of mangled and dead bodies? Sontag questions the “we” as do I. Can the white power elite- and I purposefully use the word “can” here to indicate “is able”– Can the white power elite regard photographs of Walter Scott in such a way as to make the pain narratives of people of color in racist America worth telling? Let me unpack my question.
A few days ago a video surfaced that visually documented white cops shooting down a black man in the streets of South Carolina. Let me just put out there now that I have not watched the video. My students, who watched the video in another class they are taking, told me the following: the cops shot Walter Scott, Walter Scott lay dead in the street, the cops tasered Walter Scott, the cops hand-cuffed Walter Scott’s dead body. My students also said the following: they lynch our bodies, we are depressed, we are marginalized bodies.
Meanwhile, on the New York Times, where there were 4,133 comments on the video last time I checked, I read words like “chilling”, “horrifying”, “shocking” and “a new definition of white privilege”. Who is being united here? (Again, I make assumptions about the racial-affiliation of most readers of the New York Times). Certainly not the NYT’s readership and my students. My students were not “horrified”, nor were they particularly shocked. They were calm. They were depressed. But definitely not surprised, nor are most who have grown up in the shadow of slavery and lynchings surprised.
Let me put it another way: for those who can’t opt-out of the legacy of slavery, and by that I mean people of color in this country and particularly darker-skinned people of color (as I myself am quite light-skinned and acknowledge that my body is not targeted in the same ways as others), it is not surprising that a white cop in the South, or anywhere in the United States for that matter, would gun down a black man. The white employees of the machine of slavery murdered black men in order to keep the mechanisms of slavery functioning. The murder of black men, under slavery, was logical and necessary to keep slavery going. It is with the post-civil rights racial reaction era and concurrent rise of colorblindness ideology that “surprise” has become a word associated with the murder of black men by white people. Let me repeat: surprise is a recent historical phenomenon. Nobody was surprised before we all (well, some of us) went colorblind and pretended that the election of Obama meant no “body” was racist– or racialized.
Which brings me to my second point: why would I watch yet another lynching of a black man? There is a streak of Virginia Woolf in the U.S. racial consciousness today, as if consuming these images of murdered black men (Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner) is somehow important, is somehow giving rise to a new collective social movement or at the very least– creating a united “we” interested in the reform of the police. But the “collective” “we” is a fallacy– those who are being united in regarding the pain of racial others, united in their shared surprise and horror, are the people who collectively opted into the belief that racism and white supremacy had somehow gone away. The rest of us are neither shocked, nor horrified, nor surprised.
This reminds me of a theoretical piece by Tuck and Yang (2013), who discuss in their account of social science research how the racial other is invited to speak only to produce narratives of pain. In other words, the stories we collect about the racial other are pain-based narratives and damage-centered narratives (Tuck & Yang, 2013). Yang and Tuck argue that the academy, as a settler-colonial institution, does not deserve the pain narratives of the subaltern. In many ways I agree, as much of my own research reporting focuses on collecting and narrating the assets of communities of color in public schools, instead of replicating existing narratives that public schools serving black, brown, immigrant and bilingual youth are miserable failures. While I have been able to get somewhere with this in my writing, in my teaching over the last few weeks I have discovered something that challenges my thinking about pain narratives and regarding the pain of the racial other.
My students and I have been playing with this idea of pain narratives in a unit I do on story-telling. I like to do oral based work in my classes to bring non-academic assets into academia and give my students a chance to express themselves in ways alternate to the traditional college written essay. They were given the instructions to: a) tell a 5-minute story about race, b) the story had to be true, c) the story had to be about self– not others. We read Yang and Tuck’s work on refusing to create damage-centered narratives, and also talked about stories of resistance. What I noticed was how much we all– including myself as teacher in my own race-based story that I shared with my students– struggled to move beyond a pain narrative to a resistance or desire-based narrative. My point is: it is remarkably hard not to produce narratives of pain. We are used to the pain narratives of people of color: pain narratives have become a trope that perpetuates the surprise, shock and horror of white supremacy at its own handiwork and continues the cycle of racial denial.
What would Walter Scott want? Images of his dead body, of his racial pain, are being circulated throughout the world without his permission–because he is dead. Would Walter Scott want his story to be a narrative of pain consumed by those operating in racial denial? Or– would Walter Scott want his own image to be an image of resistance and desire: laughing, playing, walking strong? I am living in these questions today, avoiding watching the lynching video, and avoiding shock, horror and surprise. I am living in my own and my students’ desire not to continue to consume racial pain, but rather to live in the future-building utopia of desire for racial healing and reparation. We are living in our struggle to try to figure out what a resistance narrative looks and sounds like.