The stories of our struggles are not for white people to consume in an effort to ‘do better’
Think of all the possibilities that exist should we invest in one another and divest entirely from the practice of curating white "empathy"
By Arielle Iniko Newton
Last weekend, my six roommates and I were interviewing potential roommates to fill an unoccupied room in the social justice-oriented home we share. One of the prospects was a white, cisgender, heterosexual man. Upon interviewing him we quickly learned that he did not possess a commitment to dismantling whiteness that we look for in housemates when he immediately asked a Black roommate if they had acquired the marijuana on the table legally.
Upon hearing many other short-sighted, anti-Black and racist sentiments such as this, the Black roommates (myself included) began passionately explaining how the lived experiences of Black people are often consumed in agony and grief at the hands of the very people who look like him and share his myopic views.
After a few minutes of “dialoguing,” I ended my participation in the interview when I realized I was growing increasingly disturbed and annoyed. We Black folk were yet again using our stories to plead our humanity to an oppressor who ultimately has no interest or stake in dismantling white supremacy, and probably never will.
Stephon Clark was executed recently, and just as with other high profile state-sanctioned executions of Black people, we are taking to the streets to demand a visage of justice. Stephon Clark’s lynching happened just days before the nationwide March for Our Lives, where millions of people across the racial and political spectrum participated in protests and rallies with the stated goal of ending gun violence in the United States.
Though the message of the mostly white student leaders of March for Our Lives has been elevated into a much greater social relevance due to both anti-Black racism and admittedly impressive organizing gleaned from the Movement for Black Lives, a clear racial disconnect is present. These youth are taking modest action toward ending the gun violence only of white mass shooters. Meanwhile, Black youth and our communities rightfully include within our frameworks the danger firearms and military-grade equipment pose in the hands and arsenals of murderous law enforcement.
In many corners of the internet, I see Black people who, in a futile effort to bridge this racial disconnect, are “demanding” that white organizers and activists cede their white privilege by centering Black people in their movement. Just like my roommates, these Black folk rely on brutal imagery and personal account in the hopes of forging a connection where one has never been shown to exist.
Storytelling is an effective organizing tactic meant to inspire people to actively marshal resources in line with your proposed worldview. Data shows that people are more moved by personal anecdotes than by numbers, stats, reason, or logic.
I do believe that storytelling has a place in our Liberation. After all, I am the senior editor of RaceBaitR, and we actively and enthusiastically encourage Black writers to develop their Black Liberationist worldview from personal experiences. On a larger scale, storytelling is the bedrock of Black culture and works as a fabric woven through time.
However, when communicating our trauma to our oppressors, storytelling is ineffective. It becomes just a titillating performance that white people have enjoyed since they kidnapped us from our Homeland.
There has been much written about how white people quickly indulge in trauma porn when Black people share our hardships. The sick desire to witness Black pain with an aura of self-righteousness does nothing more than provide a twistedly sadistic ego boost for white people at our expense. Ironically, empathy is never the end result while moral superiority is.
In the PBS column “White people don’t understand the trauma of viral police-killing videos,” Monnica Williams, an associate professor of psychology, attempts to appeal to white people by suggesting they picture themselves and their loved ones on the receiving end of state-sanctioned deadly force:
“If you are a white person, try this simple empathy experiment: Imagine every one of those police killings you’ve seen in the last several years, but change the images. Make the man getting shot look like you, your brother or your son … The empathy experiment could go on, and it should, because the differences don’t stop there. Add in the layers upon layers of trauma that are a part of the [B]lack experience in America but not a part of the white experience. Try to imagine all of it, to really shift perspectives, and understand what it is like to live the experience of these videos as a [B]lack person in United States.” (Emphasis mine.)
I cringed when I read these words because not only did I, a Black person, reimagine the videos of Black executions that I’ve unfortunately (and sometimes unwittingly) seen, but now I also carried the image of white people attempting to do the same. Only this time, the Black bodies that are the underpinning of our Movement were erased and replaced with white ones who will never, ever fear for their lives in situations such as these.
The purpose of this type of storytelling is to provoke empathy, and white people are incapable of empathizing with Black folk because the apex of an attempted connection is the emotional and physical experience of anti-Black oppression. As I’ve written previously, empathy requires a personal investment of experience, and white people will never experience anti-Black oppression. Ever.
The desire and effort to get white people to empathize with us is a futile one, and only serves to reinvigorate the erroneous tactic and strategy of bringing white people into our fight for Liberation. The day will never come when white folk en masse involve themselves in the eternal struggle of Black freedom. That only happens when we die and the bent of history is open to whitewashing, and still their involvement then is not with the goal of Black Liberation, but rather a cowardly ostentatiousness to be on the “right side of history.”
Instead, our willingness to evoke empathy and tell our stories should be exclusive to Black folk who do have a personal investment of experience. Even the least radically politicized of us know the visceral fear of having any unwarranted contact with law enforcement. In at least the most rudimentary and natural of ways, we know that anti-Black oppression is inherent to this world, and while we differ on how to rectify it, we know that it’s prevalent and ready to devour us, and that action is needed to defeat it.
By focusing our storytelling on sharing with each other, we don’t have to worry if our lived experiences resonate. We know they do because we all share them, and the unity fostered across our shared realities is much stronger than anything any white person could potentially provide should they consume our grief. We need intra-communal storytelling because in the delivery of such expression lives the skill-sharing, mutual ideation, validation of hatred towards the systems and people that oppress us, and (most significantly) joy that is required for our Liberation.
Just imagine if we were to put our effort into storytelling that connects anti-Black oppression across, among, and between imperial borders. Great deficits exist in our understanding of what oppression looks like for Black people who live in nations unfamiliar to many of us. Should these gaps close, then we get even closer to overthrowing the deep plague of intra-communal anti-Blackness.
I can’t begin to think through all of the opportunities, possibilities, and outcomes that could exist should we invest in one another and divest entirely from this wretched practice of curating deceptive white “empathy.” To do so brings us closer to Liberation and helps us outline the contours of the justice many of us would otherwise find impossible to imagine.
Arielle Newton aka Iniko is an editor at @RaceBaitR, an organizer within the Movement for Black Lives, and the founder of the Black Giving Fund. As Head Girl of Ravenclaw, she is an unapologetic mermaid, abolitionist, and radical militant freedom fighter.
Follow her on Twitter at @arielle_newton or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.