Every now and again, someone will ask me “why is everything about race?” I suppose the answer to that question is because so much in our lives really is about race regardless of whether or not we want to acknowledge it. If you doubt that, then check out a TED Talk given last year by Baratunde Thurston called “How to Deconstruct Racism, One Headline at a Time.” In this talk Thurston, who is a writer, comedian, and commentator, discusses how language shapes how we think and he uses news headlines from 2018 to make his point.
These headlines include “White Woman Calls Cops on Black Woman Waiting for an Uber” from the New York Post, and “White Woman Calls Police on Eight-Year-Old Black Girl Selling Water” from the Huffington Post. Other headlines include “Woman Calls Police on Black Family for BBQing at Lake in Oakland,”also from the Huffington Post.
Additional examples include “A White Woman Calls Police on A Black Woman Using Neighborhood Pool” (BuzzFeed News), or “Woman Calls Cops on Black Oregon Lawmaker Campaigning in Her District” (ABC News), or “White Woman Calls Police on Black Real Estate Investor Inspecting His Property” (Vox). Finally we have such gems as “Golf Club Calls Police on Black Women for Playing Too Slow” (USA Today).
These headlines inspired him to collect data on such incidences and break the sentences down into their basic building blocks, which consist of “a- subject- takes- an- action- against- a- target- engaged- in- some- activity.” He goes on to emphasize that the subject is white; the action is calling the police, the target is black or brown, and the activity is just the stuff of normal everyday living.
Recently, we heard this play out courtesy of Amy Cooper who is white, and Christian Cooper (no relation) who is black, in New York’s Central Park; if you’re not familiar with the incident Google it.
In each of the examples he gives, Thurston challenges us to ask a question, “Do we really need armed men to show up and resolve the situation?” The answer is most often no, but still they’re summoned and the result is what Thurston calls “weaponized discomfort.” The point is that too many times, when police show up for black people, it doesn’t end well. He points out that research from the Center for Policing Equity shows that most of the interactions between police and citizens come from 911 calls, not police-initiated stops. The question “do we really need armed people to show up” looms large.
I know far too many people who consider themselves enlightened, fair, and open-minded when it comes to race and ethnicity, yet I also know that some of them would call 911 at the drop of a hat not for any specific threat leveled against them, but because in their world black and brown people live under what attorney Bryan Stevenson points out is a “presumption of dangerousness and guilt.”
When it comes to our current moment and the question of police brutality and excessive force, all of the focus is on the police and their motives. That’s appropriate because we’ve invested law enforcement with the power to take someone’s freedom or their life and with that power should come great accountability. But for some of us, the focus needs to be on why we call the police in the first place, because that’s the other half of the equation. Why is so much about race? Because people of color live with the presumption of dangerousness or guilt and the response manifests itself in the form of someone else’s weaponized discomfort.
If you don’t understand what living under a presumption of dangerousness or guilt is all about, or say you don’t, then actively listen to the narrative in your head and take note of your physical reaction when you encounter a black or brown person nearby you—whether shopping in a store, walking at a park, or doing any one of 100 other mundane acts of daily living. If the internal dialogue in your head is characterized by fear or condemnation and the reaction in your body is “fight or flight,” take note of it because those are the dangers people of color have to navigate every day just to avoid someone else’s weaponized discomfort.