Why We Need to Work Against the Fallacy of Black Respectability

by Anna Gibson

Nearly two weeks ago, 19-year-old Christian Taylor was shot during an altercation with police after allegedly crashing his car through the front window of a dealership in Texas. Since this tragic incident, numerous developments have occurred. The officer who shot Taylor has been fired, and edited video footage of the incident was released. The footage shows Taylor just moments before his death. While we can’t make assumptions about this case or his actions, various sources have noted a number of discrepancies in police accounts of his case.

Regardless of how his case pans out, friends and family have uploaded pictures of the texts and tweets he sent out shortly before his death, no doubt in remembrance of both him and the legacy of goodness he left behind. However, I noted a few tweets that anticipated the media disparaging his character in lieu of the shooting.

There were smatterings of comments from prominent activists saying things like, “I dare you call him a thug” captioned on top of tweets from his timeline. These activists were referring to the “red herring” method of character assassination the media tends to disseminate to the public. This method diverts attention away from the facts of the case, instead casting speculation upon the deceased’s respectability, making it seem like their life is less worth that of a “normal, law-abiding, citizen.”

Brittany Cooper, in her piece “In Defense of Black Rage: Michael Brown, Police and the American Dream,” goes in depth about the origins of white supremacist defamation of character. She states:
“I believe that racism exists in the inexplicable sense of fear, unsafely and gnawing anxiety that white people, be they officers with guns or just general folks moving about their lives, have when they encounter black people. I believe racism exists in that sense of mistrust, the extra precautions white people take when they encounter black people. I believe all these emotions have emerged from a lifetime of media consumption subtly communicating that black people are criminal...”

The fear of black rage begins in slavery with the stereotypes of the Angry Black Man and Sapphire figures that serve as counterparts to one another. The uprisings of Nat Turner was one of the first incidents to instill the fear of black anger in white slave masters. In order to diminish this fear, slave masters would severely punish the black male slave who was too aggressive for the master’s sensibilities. The fact that a ‘negro’ is ‘uppity’ enough to demand respect and dignity, and retaliate if he doesn’t get it seems to intimidate them, despite the fact that slaves were treated as less than human.

A prominent historical website called the Jim Crow Museum, cites one John Wesley Blassingame. Blassingame states:
"Nat was the rebel who rivaled Sambo in the universality and continuity of his literary image. Revengeful, bloodthirsty, cunning, treacherous, and savage, Nat was the ravager of white women who defied all the rules of plantation society.”
After Michael Brown was shot down, Darren Wilson mentioned in an interview that Brown overpowered him, saying, “The only way I can describe it was like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” He later describes how Mike Brown would charge at him, saying, “His face twisted into what I can only describe as a demon.”

We would later find out Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are the same height at 6’4” and close to the same weight. In support of this seemingly crazed and menacing portrayal of black life, prominent media outlets posted pictures of Michael Brown posing ‘menacingly’ and making a ‘gang sign.' Most viewers objected to this, noting that it was simply a peace sign and recognizing the smear campaign that existed to tear down Brown’s character. The similarities between the ‘savage’ and “menacing” Nat Turner caricature are clear. Mike Brown, like most strong black men, was seen as a threat, a stereotype that carried over from slavery into the 21st century.

The imagery surrounding black women is similarly distorted. On one hand, black women were seen as combative and domineering, portrayed as the Sapphire who was untamed, brash, and a nuisance to everyone around her. This can be seen most readily in the recent Sandra Bland case. Sandra was subject to an extreme case of police brutality that was caught on tape. Shortly after, she was found dead in her jail cell. While people speculate on the nature of her death, it can’t be denied that her character was negatively scrutinized in a manner similar to Mike Brown.

Officials chose to focus on the miniscule amount of marijuana in her system rather than the suspicious nature of her death. Why the Waller County District Attorney would choose to release this information is unknown and largely irrelevant to the details of the case, and the fact that it points toward foul play.

However, we do know that dominant society has a tendency to try to undermine black people to stand up for themselves and take back their autonomy. In the video of her arrest, we can see Sandra Bland doing just that. She advocates for her rights, and refuses to submit to the officers’ intimation tactics. She even threatens to file a lawsuit. When confronted with a black woman who dared to stand up for herself, and bolstered by years of engrained privilege, this white police officer could have been intimidated. The explosive exchange that occurred afterward could have been a consequence of this intimidation.

Black people are vilified and have been for a long time, for simply being who they are. Historical archetypes are being repeated and these stereotypes threaten the underlying system of white supremacy in our society. It’s clear that unless we dismantle this system, history will continue to repeat itself.

We don’t yet know what will happen in the Christian Taylor case. What we do know, is that we shouldn’t have to prove that he wasn’t the “type of person” who deserved to live. We shouldn’t have to defend his humanity, or the humanity of anyone who’s brutalized by the police. Black people need to confront and redefine the realities of our existence. We need to actively fight against attempts to assassinate our character.

We have to become the voice of the voiceless, who can no longer speak for themselves. We can do this in many ways, from recounting the facts of the case on social media, to petitioning for laws to be changed. Whatever we choose to do, we need to take back control of our narratives and not allow anyone to define who we are for us: our lives depend on it.

Photo: Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University who seeks to tell the stories of the marginalized. If you would like to talk with her (she would love to speak with you) you can catch up with her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook where she’s handing out under the name Anna Gibson.

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