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Monday, May 11, 2020

Brown Deaths vs. White Deaths

Aaaaand immediately after whining about some totally other project that means I'm not writing here, here's another short essay.

There is a standard bit of theory among Media Thinkers that gets rolled out a lot. It is that the deaths of black and brown people are represented in the media as less important than the deaths of white people, and the proof of this is invariably that we are shown the former, and not the latter.

I do not intend to specifically quibble with the conclusion, only what passes for the argument that arises to support it.

I see this argument most recently on vox.com, here: The viral video of ... which makes the point that pictures of various other deaths are suppressed in the media, while the death of Ahmaud Arbery has been made rather public. Weirdly, the piece simultaneously argues that this video specifically, and other similar imagery, has been powerful, while at the same time restating the thesis that these things render those black and brown deaths less important.

Sentilles drags out Nick Ut's photo as an example of a powerful change-inducing photo, which points to a powerful lack of research on her part. All you have to do is look at the date of Ut's photo to see that it was, in fact, very late in the game well after the changes we imagine it spurred were inexorably under way.

Weirdly, her piece seems to be specifically arguing exactly opposing positions, simultaneously. White deaths are being hidden from us, suppressed, they have zero impact, which makes them, somehow, the important ones? White people are afforded privacy to die unmarked, unknown, which means they are the important ones? Brown deaths, being paraded for our delectation, are impactful, powerful, fraught with meaning, and with the power to change, which somehow means they are the unimportant ones?

Emmett Till's mother insisted on an open casket funeral for a reason: to make her son's death matter.

This piece is particularly off key, because of course the video of Ahmaud Arbery's death has served to render his death, in the public eye, important. His death, which would have been private, unmarked, unimportant had the video not surfaced, has become important. And let me be clear: it is important. At this moment in history, in this nation, this is the imagery we need to see. With all respect to those of you who have lost family and friends, Arbery's death matters more to us as a people, and it should.

And it does, specifically because this video has been put out there. Arbery's death is in the media, and your mother's, your son's, your spouse's is not, because his matters more.

Try on this alternative view of the suppression and distribution of the photography of death: Perhaps white death is suppressed because we don't need to see it. Perhaps the ubiquitous visual of brown death is what we need. Perhaps it is not an engine of white supremacy, but an engine driving forward in gradual, painful, hard-won steps, inch by inch, toward an equal understanding, an equal valuation, of brown and black death versus white.

I don't believe that argument any more than I believe the other one. Nobody has demonstrated anything like a causal path here. I do not know what is true. I do not know if there is any particular relationship between the representations of death and the ways we, as a group of related cultures, perceive the people depicted or not in those representations. The point is that neither does anyone else.

The standard piece simply recites the standard thesis, and tries to simultaneously pretend that it's an amazing new insight the author has just had, and also completely obvious and no actual argument is necessary. One need only state the thesis and stand back, smiling proudly.

Not good enough. That is not an argument, and your entire paper is muddled. F.

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