Featured Post

Pinned Post, A Policy Note:

I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Deaths Brown and White II

I noodled on these questions (see previous remarks for context) some. It is genuinely a muddled and confused situation, which is no excuse for writing and publishing muddled articles. Sarah Sentilles has apparently been writing this piece for a while, she cites an earlier version of it in the NYT in which she seems to rather more acknowledge the muddle, but doesn't sort it out much.

Amusingly, in the NYT piece she is still a 15 year veteran of doing this work, even though it was written nearly two years earlier than the vox piece, which suggests at least a modicum of "phoning it in" at this point.

Anyways, she's not wrong. I do believe that the research ("counting") has been done, and that when you see a dead person in the western media, that person's skin is brown almost without exception. But the why is not at all clear. The standard response, Sentilles' among them, is to say "well racism, duh" and leave it at that.

There are real issues here that we ought not to handwave away. First of all, there is a difference between the choices which lead a visual to be "put out there" one way or another, and separately, there is the impact that it has. These are entangled, but not the same, and one ought to at least nod at the difference if you want to pretend to some sort of authority here (nobody ever does.)

The second thing is that there are conflicting mechanisms in play in the "choice to publish" machinery.

We have, historically, a lot of pictures of Victorian era brown people with, yeah, a subtext of "look at these weirdos, we should totally run their lives, teach them to wear pants, and take their shit." The Victorians published photos of the quick and the dead, but this is correctly viewed as the origin in these trends. There are lynching photos with a subtext of "powerful/good whitey teaches the Negro a valuable albeit brief lesson." We have photo editors — possibly with brown skin themselves — who are adhering to style guides and only publishing photos of "distant" victims, who are usually brown.

Call these "racist" mechanics, loosely construed.

We also have Emmett Till's mother, holding an open casket funeral for her son. We also have the video of Ahmaud Arbery being distributed. We have people re-distributing lynching photos in order not to support racism but to oppose it. There is a whole category of distribution here.

Call these "anti-racist" mechanics, loosely construed.

All this material muddles together, and the result is that when we see a dead body on social media or in the news, the skin is almost invariably brown.

The critical insight here is, I think, that sometimes the counter to the oppressing move is identical to the oppressing move, especially in media, in communication. The usage of the n-word, or to a lesser degree the word bitch falls into precisely the same category. There are two common usages for these words, with meanings that are precisely opposite.

In the same way there are two precisely opposite meanings to the photograph or video of a brown person's death or corpse, and that meaning, like the n-word, depends entirely on context.

Like a lynching photo, the video of Ahmaud Arbery's last moments is no doubt being circulated with both meanings. In racist circles it probably bears captions and commentary that no thinking human being could abide. One hopes that the actual impact of this distribution is effectively nil. In that context, it supports an overtly racist agenda. In more public circles it is being distributed with precisely the opposite intent, and, it appears, having precisely the opposite effect. At any rate the armed truck-owning (well, let's be honest, it's probably a lease) monkeys have at any rate finally been arrested.

We have here two opposing ideological systems, both devoted to publishing brown death, neither with any interest in white death.

What we are seeing is, I think, a struggle not over whether brown people or white people deserve respect in death, or whatever, but specifically over how we ought to view the picture of the brown corpse. It is not, I think, that we're specifically elevating white people here (although I suppose that could be a knock on effect) but that there are forces which seek to downplay, and others which seek to uplift, the status of the brown person specifically in death.

The fact that the two forces are using the same methods is confusing. This does not excuse the muddled hand-waving that passes for discourse on this topic.

It is as if, in studying the battle of Waterloo, the researchers noted similar weapons and tactics on all sides, and gave up. When asked to explain Waterloo, they now simply wave their hands and say, "Napoleon, duh."

On the one hand, yes, Napoleon is to blame. Without racism there would, likewise, be no story here. But to try to explain Waterloo with a handwave and "Napoleon, duh" would be ludicrous. We should not put up with this sort of so-called reasoning elsewhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment