On August 9th Mike Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed young Black man, was shot six times by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and then left in the street for four and a half hours. Following his senseless killing, Brown’s character has been smeared in the media, a discussion which has distracted from the facts of the case and disregarded Brown’s humanity. On Monday November 24th, it was announced that the offending officer would not even be brought to trial for his actions, further denying Brown, his community, and all victims of oppression, their rights to justice. As a result of this failure to serve justice, protesters in the St. Louis metropolitan area have inspired nationwide debate and protest of this incident as symbolic of a pattern wherein people of color are consistently persecuted by our police, dehumanized in our media and denied justice in our courts. This is a pattern enabled by our legal system, but more discreetly encountered, racism is a problem that we must confront wherever we produce and experience culture.
In looking to identify the source of this failure to enact justice, it can feel satisfying to blame the legal system, an institution that relatively few people can access and contribute to. What is more engaging is to examine the role that a culture of racism plays in enabling this consistent failure to deliver justice. In using media such as humor, fashion choice, Youtube comments, and Facebook shares, everyone participates in cultural expression and consumption. Because cultural expressions are often methods by which racism is both perpetuated and supported, for me as a White person, racism is most commonly encountered as racist culture.
Cultural expression and consumption, in this broad sense as well as in the traditional senses of art, performance and literature, interact with racism in a number of conflicting ways. Cultural expressions can shape and perpetuate biases, and in doing so perpetuate racism. They can also act to resist racism, particularly in cases where these expressions operate parallel to racist institutions by using often unrecognized forms of power that cultural expression affords. (An awesome explanation of how cultural expressions have operated historically to resist institutional racism can be found in the work of Eric Avila, an associate professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA.)
One recently studied, and incredibly relevant, instance in which popular cultural tropes reinforce racism is documented in a 2014 study titled “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks” by Adam Waytz, Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter. (I was made aware of this study and its relevance to the proceedings in Ferguson by an article titled “This is What Power Looks Like” by Rebecca Traister, published on November 25th on the website of the New Republic.) This study examines a phenomenon in which Black cultural icons are often imagined as a “supernatural archetype” that, perhaps counter-intuitively, dehumanizes their subjects by ascribing to them superhuman qualities. Examples of this phenomenon range from the typecasting of Morgan Freeman as an extra-dimensional super being, to Darren Wilson’s characterization of Michael Brown as a “demon.” (It is a reaffirming coincidence that “demon” was a word noted by this study: “…concepts such as devil and demon are unique in that they simultaneously occupy status as subhumans, but also may appear to possess supernatural qualities…”)
Through empirical psychological research, this study argues that dehumanization through superhumanization perpetuated by a common cultural trope can specifically discourage White people from empathizing with Black people in pain. The authors go on to write, “Superhumanization of Blacks might also explain why people consider Black juveniles to be more ‘‘adult’’ than White juveniles….Relatedly, superhumanization of Blacks may contribute to Whites’ tolerance for police brutality against Blacks.” While this phenomenon and similar cultural themes make us daily consumers of racist ideology, cultural expressions can also be used to resist racist institutions.
In recent resistances to this particular denial of justice in Ferguson, Missouri, cultural expressions have supplanted the role of the legal system to indict both the individual agents of our oppressive legal system, and the system itself. In a performance on the steps of The Old Courthouse midday on Wednesday November 26th, the historic trial of Dred Scott was referenced in a mock trial of Robert McCulloch and Darren Wilson performed by The Black Soldiers. The performance, which employed audience participation and humor, condemned these individuals as agents of a system that both tacitly and explicitly supports the right of police to abuse and kill Black people. The actor who played Darren Wilson cited “White privilege” as his defense, lampooning Wilson, satirizing the grand jury proceedings and implicating a context more pervasive than our legal system that enables racism.
This enabling context is not only a legal condition, but it is also a cultural condition. Unlike the legal system, which both intentionally and incidentally denies agency, interfacing with our racist cultural context is inescapable. Cultural expressions can serve to both bolster and resist racism, and our consumption and production of these expressions position us as actors in this arena. This is an empowering realization for those looking to combat racism, but who feel powerless in the face of a legal system that has proven itself incapable of adequately serving justice for people of color and many other persecuted communities. Through engagement with this cultural reality we can identify, boycott, and ultimately resist racism in our daily lives by fostering a culture of empathy. In response to the status quo, this culture of empathy should kindle trust, enabling encounters with differing perspectives that engage and respect the humanity of all humans.
The author would like to acknowledge the following individuals for their help editing this piece: Briana Payton, Khallid Love, Hannah Rosenthal, Christina Chica, Ozioma Obi-Onuoha, Asanni York, Wendi Li, and Terrence Fraser.