Who is Supposed to See Us?

A critique I have about contemporary spectators of art is that we, more often than not, make premature commentary. Rather than taking the time to fully digest all the nuances of the art piece, we engage in this competition to be the victor with the most compelling think piece. So, (of course, like the true hypocrite I am), in an extemporaneous, sensationalist-rage like fashion, I posted something I regret about the movie When They See Us - Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries that chronicles the story of the Central Park 5. Only 20 minutes into the first episode, I found myself on Instagram typing  a quick analysis of why I could not and would not finish watching the four part series. I wrote:

“So, I was just trying to watch #WhenTheySeeUs on Netflix. I think it’s important to give y’all this disclaimer.

The series is very difficult to watch. I was 20 minutes into the first episode and found it very difficult to breathe.

If you know you are hypersensitive to the pain of Black and Brown people, don’t watch it. It’s possible to understand the plight of Black and Brown folks and the story of the Central Park Five without putting yourself through that.

In my opinion, that film series is more for White people who need to watch trauma porn in order to really understand racism.”

I regret referring to the film as “trauma porn” because what DuVernay created is not just an artistic effort to portray the lives of the five men who were wrongfully accused of brutally raping a White woman in 1989, it is an archival record of the insidious beast that is American racism. What happened to those young men actually happened and to reduce what they must consider to be the most monumental moments in their lives to “trauma porn” is to engage in a form of gaslighting. I, caught in an emotional stupor, engaged in a form of violence that sought to delegitimize the significance of these men being able to tell their stories on a global platform. For that, I am deeply regretful for my comment.

Yet, I do not apologize for holding steadfastly to the notion that Black and Brown people do not need to bear witness to our skinfolk being murdered in order to truly understand our plight. As much as I want consumers of art to be particular about how they digest pop-cultural and socio-political pieces, I also want artists to think critically about who they want to consume their art. I make this call especially in an age where the pace of production far outpaces the people’s capacity to fully digest and heal from these harrowing news headlines. I fear that we are living in a time in which Black and Brown people are being forced to relive their trauma more than once; we endure the initial pain and shock that accompanies the degradation of justice and then, just a couple years later, we are reminded of our losses through a socio-political film.

Evidently, Black and Brown people already have examples of how contemporary American racism manifests. The names of America’s victims are etched permanently into my mind, so much so that once I am triggered, I can remember the feeling of mourning complete strangers on the nights their lives were taken. Arguably, the primary audience of this film is not Black and Brown people. Instead, I believe this film was made with the education of White people in mind: If White people finally see the faces of these five victims who were dehumanized by Whiteness, they will feel compelled to actually do something about racism.

As someone who has been following the Black Lives Matter Movement for six years, I feel like similar sentiments have been expressed about almost all of the contemporary victims of White Supremacy. It’s why spectators engage in the incessant sharing of police brutality videos and it’s why so many Black and Brown people make efforts to center White people in their teachings. But I can’t help but feel that we are screaming to the wind, hoping that our voices will echo far enough to compel White people to empathize with us. Yet, similar to all the Black and Brown who were murdered through White Supremacist settler colonialism and imperialism, I fear that White people’s ability to empathize with Black and Brown people died, too.

There is this universal sentiment that Black people have a high emotional and physical capacity for pain, not once considering that our buckets are already seeping over from our own tears. From medicine to film, we tend to treat Black bodies as objects that merely exist for research and artifacts that serve as archival records of racism and White Supremacy. Yet, in the midst of reducing our humanity to political statements, we ignore the diasporic need to heal.

This is one of my many concerns with White allyship and the continuous effort to center the education of White people in our liberation movement. In order for White people to learn about racism, Black and Brown people have to endure the pain of having to relive through the trauma that accompanies racism. I think we’re wasting our time when we question whether Black and Brown people need to endure our trauma through film. Rather, we should be asking why White people need to witness our brutalization in order to finally see us.