The White Gaze Kills (Again): Renisha McBride was Shot in the Face by a Shotgun Because Black Americans Do Not Have the Luxury of Being Strangers in Need of Help
In the post civil rights era, the colorline is beset by many paradoxes.
The United States finally elected its first black president. There is a multicultural elite class. In this same moment, African Americans are harassed and racially profiled by "stop and frisk laws" and the experience known as “shopping while black”.
Black people are subjected to extrajudicial murder and violence by gun mad vigilantes, operating under onerous stand your ground laws, who shoot and murder young black people for the “crime” of walking down the street, in a neighborhood “where they don’t belong”, not being duly submissive, and carrying a bag of Skittles and iced-tea.
Full citizenship involves the presumption that one belongs to a political community. By virtue of that fact, citizenship also means that a person is entitled to safety and security in their person without qualification, exception, or justification. Full citizenship is not contingent or precarious.
African-Americans are not allowed such protections by the White Gaze. They are viewed as guilty until proven innocent, a criminal Other who is a priori categorized as “suspicious” and “dangerous”. While formal racism and Jim and Jane Crow were shattered and defeated by the Black Freedom Struggle, this ugly cloud continues to hover over the United States, some 400 years after the first black slaves were brought to the country.
Consequently, black Americans are not really allowed to seek help from white people; the Parable of the Good Samaritan does not apply to people of color as viewed through the twin lenses of Whiteness and the White Gaze. The black and brown Other is not allowed the luxury and privilege of knowing that if they seek help when in distress—either from the police, or white folks, more generally—that such pleadings and requests will be met with a “How can I help you? Are you in trouble?”
Of course, black Americans do not live under the threat of mass violence and racial pogroms that characterized the “Red Summer” of the post World One era when whole towns and communities were blown up, burned down, and the bodies of black people were hung from trees and signposts in the dozens and hundreds by rampaging white mobs.
There is a sense of dread and worry that remains. It impacts our peace of mind, and gives a tragic patina to the types of life skills which we have to teach young black boys and girls to avoid being killed by the police, racially harassed while conducting their daily business, and how to navigate a society where white racism and white privilege still impacts their life chances and upward mobility.
Such a burden can be mentally exhausting.
Freedom and the end of chattel slavery subtly modified how violence could be visited on black bodies by white society. This is signaled to by a scene in the new movie 12 Years a Slave, in which Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped by white slavers, is forced to show a white man his “slave tag”. The latter were pieces of metal, similar to a dog license, which indicated to whom a given black person, owned as human property, belonged.
The slave tag offered some protection from the random violence of white people because it indicated that a slave owner had a monopoly of force over their black human property. Chattel slavery was a system of mass violence and racial terrorism against black Americans that fueled American wealth and empire. But, the right of a given white person(s) to maim, murder, rape, and kill a given black person was relatively exclusive.
With the end of slavery and Reconstruction, black people—men, women, and children—were subjected to the racial violence of Jim and Jane Crow, along with its constant companion the lynching tree, and its bounty that Billie Holiday so mournfully described as strange fruit. These lived experiences, historical memory, and pain of extrajudicial violence and vigilantism (which was legitimated by the State) is a legacy passed down across generations.
Black people would like to forget this violence. We do not have such a luxury in America if we are to honor our ancestors and understand how their experiences and history informs the present.
Many white folks would like to forget this violence too, as it would further a narrative of Whiteness as something benign, and just like the standard white privilege colorblind racism denying deflection that “none of their ancestors ever owned slaves” (we are a nation of immigrants after all), they also want to believe that their people, family, and kin did not participate in the blood sport which was the spectacular lynching.
Americans want to believe that they are an “innocent” and "good" people. Lies, both personal and collective, are very comforting. American Exceptionism is an ideal-typical example of this yearning.
Formal lynchings are part of America’s near past. In the present, Stand Your Ground Laws, police brutality, and how black people are still treated as alien Outsiders, embody the descendants of a tradition which links whiteness, "Americanness", and violence together.
Jonathan Ferrell was shot multiple times by a white police officer after being in a car accident and approaching them for help.
Glenda Moore’s children drowned during Hurricane Sandy because she had the misfortune of seeking help in a white community that refused her any aid.
In the United States, there are many different types of freedom. Black folks and other people of color have the freedom to vote—although this right is in under assault by the Tea Party GOP. Black Americans have the freedom to participate in the consumer’s republic and the marketplace as equals with white people—but, this freedom is also constrained in practice. African-Americans exercised their freedom to elect a black man President—yet, he has done little if anything to address the specific needs of that community.
The freedom of black people to be strangers, and to be offered help when in distress, seems minor when compared to confronting the institutional white supremacy which still exists in the United States. They are complementary goals because both involve accepting that black people are full members of American society, and our personhood and freedom is not peripheral to the democratic project, but rather central to it.
The White Gaze which believes that President Obama is not an American citizen is the same one that shot Renisha McBride in the head with a shotgun. They both operate from an assumption that the black body and the personhood of black people are existentially outside of what it means to be an “American”.
For that political imagination, black people are poisons in the body politic of the United States.
As a country, the United States has made great strides in confronting formal racism and white supremacy. There remains a long way to go in changing how people of color are still viewed as second class citizens deemed uniquely fit for a state best described as “unsafe, unguarded, and unprotected”.
The White Gaze which murdered Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell and Trayvon Martin is predicated on the above assumption. Ultimately, the problem here is not with black or brown people. We have done nothing wrong. The White Gaze is a type of pathology, one that is incapable of viewing non-whites as full human beings.
Once more, although it will not, White America needs to have a moment of introspection and a “national conversation” about how its laws make it legal to shoot and kill innocent people of color who are "guilty" of "crime" such as walking down the street or seeking help after a car accident.