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.