In an article by BBC describes the events that occurred to Martese Johnson on March 18th, 2015.
The language and story here is simple: the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) attacked a black student, Martese Johnson, and acted with unnecessary force.
The issue here is not only the unnecessary force, but also of a greater narrative that goes ignored, especially given recent events in Ferguson where racial profiling – stereotyping people based on their race – by white police officers was called into question. At no point in the article is there implication of racial profiling by the ABC officers, yet the article clearly articulates that Johnson is black.
Why is being black important in the headline but not the details?
The language surrounding Johnson and the ABC ignores the racial component which is present in all accounts of incidents regarding black people. Our society has heavily ingrained certain stereotypes regarding black people; the obvious examples being that they are “thugs” and “trouble makers”. The way we view black bodies has a phenomenal impact on how we act against them. It is not surprise then that the Ferguson police – comprised predominantly of white men – have been founded to be conducting unjust, systematic, brutality against black bodies (CBC, 2015).
It is a race issue because we see black people as different, as “not white”. We understand and recognize that being black is a part of who they are as human beings therefore we should also understand that being black may influence the ways we unconsciously (or consciously) treat them. All issues involving black people will have undertones of race within them. You cannot discern an individual from their race because race shapes their experiences in the same way being a student is also an integral part of Johnson’s identity (Jones, 2014). We also cannot forget how these stereotypes are subtly ingrained into our society, how anti-blackness – a form of racism which specifically targets black people – is prevalent throughout our entire system, and how media has reinforced it by creating the image of the “thug” black person (Punyanunt-Carter, 2008).
Perhaps what is interesting is not only about the language, but the way Johnson is presented in the article as well. Johnson was a member of his university’s honor committee, and had a campaign to rerun for his position (“JusticeforMartese”, 2015). This detail is not in the article; however, it is an important detail as it presents Johnson as more than just another black student. These facts about who he is humanizes him, especially when contrasted against his bloody photos. There are also no pictures of Johnson’s campaigns, working on various groups, even being an active member of society; there is only him as a victim. This objectifies black bodies as nothing more than ways to shock and surprise people. Bloodied black bodies are used as a way to shock and horrify people, and in a sense it is also normalized, or presented as a normal occurrence. The more images we see of bruised, bloodied, black bodies in the media, the less sensitive we become to their suffering.
The language surrounding black movements for autonomy and basic human rights has been language that is clearly anti-black. This is most obviously when comparing the language between the Ferguson protests and the Hong Kong protests. The protests occurred roughly within the same time period, yet the contexts in which they existed, and what they were fighting for were radically different. One was an attempt to fight against white supremacy – a system of racism where white people benefit the most – and the demand for black bodies to be respected and free of racial profiling, while the latter was a fight for democratic rights. Wikipedia, which is a source people accurately use today to gain general information, describe the Ferguson protests as “unrest” whereas Hong Kong protests are called what they are – protests (Wikipedia, 2015).
So why does this matter?
Unrest suggests a fault on the protesters themselves, unrest implies a sense of chaos inflicted by the protestors. Unrest suggests it is the fault of the victims, and more importantly that somehow their protests are less legitimate because of this sense of chaos. Most of the residents of Ferguson were for their protests, but only a small majority were for the protests in Hong Kong. Ferguson was likely just as chaotic as Hong Kong, yet they were painted as a less legitimate cause. This is inherently anti-black because of the fact that the discourse around Ferguson has delegitimized the cause. It is seen as a less valid fight for basic human rights than Hong Kong because the protestors are black and fighting for black rights for human life.
In contrast, Hong Kong was praised by western as the “most peaceful” protest since many of the protestors did “polite” and “proper” thing such as cleaning up after their protests, creating study corner, etc (Fisher, 2014). It is difficult to ignore how this might interplay with the East Asian model minority myth in which East Asians are depicted as the “ideal”, submissive, docile but hardworking and polite minorities. Traditionally, this stereotype has been used to justify racism within white settler colonial countries; the failure of black Americans to succeed was not because they were not white but because they were black. The Asians did fine. It was blackness that was the cause of failure (Nakagawa, 2015). Of course, this is obviously not true, many Asians did not fit this stereotype and faced structural inequalities, and white supremacy was the barrier for black people in America.
This type of juxtaposition between Hong Kong and Ferguson emphasized how western media depicts one race (in this case, East Asians) as a toxic “ideal” and the other as a problem of blackness despite both essentially acting the same.
The discourse around black bodies is one that suggests they are the cause of their own problems. Society polices – which is the act of enforcing certain restrictions – black bodies around respectability politics – which is the idea that acting, dressing, or behaving a certain way as to not be stereotyped in a certain harmful manner, and is used to deny structural inequalities such as racism – and this is shown in our discourse in both media (typically owned by and written by white people) to casually ignore their suffering or suggest it is not systematic, but an individual circumstance. This casually ignores anti-blackness and its violent manifestations, of which Martese Johnson, Mike Brown, and countless other black people are victim of everyday.
So let’s call it what it is: anti-black, systematic, racism.
“2014 Hong Kong Protests.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
“Facts at a Glance, University of Virginia.” Current Enrollment,. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
“Ferguson Unrest.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Fisher, Max. “Western Media Says Hong Kong Protests Are “clean and Orderly.” Is That Racist?” Vox. 2 Oct. 2014. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Jones, Denisha. “The Death of Michael Brown, Teachers, and Racism: 10 Things Every Badass Teacher Needs To Understand.” Bad Ass Teacher’s Association. 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
“JusticeForMartese.” Indiegogo Life. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Nakagawa, Scot. “The Model Minority Is a Lever of White Supremacy.” Race Files. CHANGELAB, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
News, CBC. “Ferguson Police Report: 5 Examples of Abuse of Power.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 5 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.
Punyanunt-Carter, Narissa. “The Perceived Realism of African American Portrayals on Television.” The Howard Jounral of Communications 28 (2008): 241-57. University of Oregan Library. Web. 8 Apr. 2015. <https://library.uoregon.edu/sites/default/files/data/guides/english/howard_journal_communications.pdf>.
“Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” BBC News. 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.