Don’t Put Yourself in My Shoes
BY: DEVONTAE TORRIENTE
About two years ago, I took a course on African American history. In that class, we discussed the impacts of slavery, from the early formation of fictive kinship amongst enslaved Africans to the nuances of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. In some of the scholarly works and academic literature we read, the idea of using empathy to further the cause of abolition came up time and again.
I prefer to call it the “empathy tactic,” a method of appealing to the morality of white people by evoking the visceral imagery of slavery and overall brutality against those of the African diaspora. It is not a new tactic, but it is a particularly profound one. It is premised on the notion that no matter your identity, we are all people first and the horrific reality of injustice should spur you to action and move you to fight for justice.
I agree with the fundamentals of that idea. The audience—the people to whom the person speaking out is trying to appeal—likely benefits from the actual oppression that the author is explaining. Understandably, the oppressed person wants the audience to feel what they are feeling. They want to speak to the audience’s humanity. While harmless on its face, the reality of that notion is much more menacing.
Yes, it is better that we have more people fighting against injustice than remaining silent. However, using empathy as a means of achieving equality centers the oppressed. It posits that the priority has to be, in some form, the sensationalization of pain to appeal to those who cannot otherwise feel it. It results in endlessly sharing body camera videos, dash camera footage, and personal recordings of violence against Black bodies in a way that neglects the retraumatization of those affected by it. That is precisely what happens when the oppression of Black people becomes secondary to the desire to appeal to white people.
There is a valid case to be made that we have to share these videos and stories far and wide so that people can no longer deny the troubling reality so many of us live with. But I refuse to watch or share videos of violence against Black people simply because it tends to serve one of two purposes: It either desensitizes the viewer and the public to the problem at hand, or it further traumatizes those who live in fear of such violence.
The tactic has proven powerful in guiding the national conversation around police violence and Black lives. It has shaped how we talk about the killings of Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Kiwi Herring and so many more. It’s difficult, nearly impossible, for me to have a conversation about policing without discussing its historical and present-day impact on Black people. But the reality is, we have spent entire generations attempting to appeal to the morality of our oppressors, arguably with little success in changing the structural barriers that still hold us not only back, but down.
Black death has been a staple of American culture and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The spectacle of it has evolved from gathering in the town square for a public lynching to clicking on the hashtag of the latest victim of police violence, and sharing the videos that accompany it. I believe that recording police officers adds a much needed layer of accountability, but the next time you share a video of a Black person being killed, ask yourself why you are doing so.
We should certainly continue to make it clear that Black lives are just as valuable as any other life. We should continue to build a future in which Black people are not just allowed to live, but also allowed to reach the full potential such a life has endowed them. But we are at a point in public discourse about anti-Blackness in which we center white people and their empathy, rather than Black people and their grief. Black people are people, and our lives should be valued for that very reason. We don’t become any more valuable the moment you put yourself in our world. The sooner that view is reflected in the pervasive public narratives of racism and anti-Blackness, the stronger the fight for Black lives will be.