Reducto ad Absurdum and Fear of Black Bodies

Oluwa Jones '15 Staff Writer 

Recently a student from rural New England came into one of my classes and started telling me, and another woman of color, about a racist family member who made several uninformed comments about Ferguson. She recognized that their views were overtly racist, but she didn’t engage with the arguments. The student just shook her head and said the individual was wrong, but I wanted to ask her why she thought that. It’s easy just write off someone as racist, but it’s harder to really think about racism and inequality. I also hear a lot of white people talk about how many people they’ve unfriended on Facebook, but none of these actions are useful.

Unfriending people on Facebook, and mocking racist family members, is a way for well-intentioned people to distance themselves from the agents of racism, white people and institutions. It’s important for white people to use their privilege to call these people out. Mocking racist people stems from the view that racism is so ridiculous and far from the mainstream as to be laughable, but these are the views of most members of our society. Furthermore, white people are not the only culprits. A lot of non-black people of color make the same kind of flippant complaints about their family members. But a lot of non-black people of color hold onto white supremacist views and many non-black communities even have their own specific racial epithets for black people.

In order for us to move forward we need a deeper analysis than just reducing racist statements to the absurd. It’s important to break down these views. When I heard my white classmate take a mocking attitude towards the racists in her life, I noticed that her analysis of the remarks was shallow. I wanted to ask her if she even knew why these statements were wrong and why it’s important to take them seriously.

Does she know why it’s wrong to question Mike Brown’s character? It’s important to understand that the effort to portray him as threatening and dangerous, which has been very successful, is a way for white supremacists to assert that his murder was deserved and necessary. In truth, it doesn’t matter if Mike Brown was a good person, of if he stole, or whether or not he was planning to start college, whether he was violent or shy or whatever. He deserved to live because he’s a human being whose life mattered.

Did she really get why it’s wrong to characterize the protesters as looters? Here lies the root of the problem. Many white people sincerely believe that the police and the legal system operate without bias. We don’t live in a society in which real change can come from working within these systems or voting in presidential elections. The way to demand change is ugly and messy and what’s happening in Ferguson is part of a long process that will take decades to unfold. There can only be so much repression in a democratic system, especially one that symbolically embraces the idea that everyone has a right to life, particularly a free and peaceful life. Furthermore, did this Smithie get why “black-on-black” crime is so disparate from police violence? And why even using the term demonizes and pathologizes black behavior? These are complex questions that warrant engaging. As the beneficiaries of these remarks, white people owe people of color that much.

Most white liberals espouse ideologies of racial equality but back down when confronted with a chance to take real anti-racist action. Most fair-weather liberals are not that different from the active bigots they like to ridicule, as most people have internalized anti-blackness. The fear Darren Wilson had for Mike Brown is not unlike the fear many Smithies have for black people. When I used to walk across campus late at night in front of the President’s house or any poorly lit part of campus many Smithies would exhibit fear just from my presence. Some jump out of the way and try to avoid me, or some people would clutch their bags and keep their heads down. This happened to me nearly every night when I was living in the quad, and it’s something I experienced all the time growing up. This fear of black bodies that happens here at Smith and throughout the U.S., is not unlike the fear white people had for Renisha McBride and all these other men, women, children, and trans* persons who have been murdered by the state or vigilantes. In order to tackle racism and inequality we cannot let the racist people in our lives off the hook or act as though we have not internalized racism ourselves. The way to end racism is to change hearts and minds, starting with the people closest to you.