I was inspired by Mysia Anderson’s piece published in The Stanford Daily on September 24, “Who is the shooter?” It’s an important call to understand the moral implications of racial hierarchies in the United States.
That can be a disturbing task. Racial hierarchies are perpetuated not only through such “public” acts as media coverage on Ferguson but also through such “private” ones as “grip[ping] your purse tighter when you see a black face walking toward you on the street” or “your heart beat[ing] faster when you see a black man walking toward you in the middle of the night.”
Research like Jennifer Eberhardt’s uses controlled experiments to reveal ingrained racial hierarchies in these little phenomena that elude contemplation – useful knowledge, but how do we change these phenomena? We can’t edit implicit bias out of our neural networks, and even if we could, the ethics of that would be sketchy at best. And so we’re left with memory and mindfulness: remembering those times when we gripped our purses tighter or when our hearts beat faster and being mindful of those phenomena when they arise.
Let me disclaim my use of “we”: I’m referring to all people who have acted on implicit bias – and that’s not just a few. No matter our identities, we all have the task of contemplation ahead of us if we want to come to terms with how hierarchies bias us. This is the main point I took from Anderson’s article; now I’d like to supplement it.
Understanding doesn’t simply leap out of our experiences of identity. (I’m indebted to Paula Moya’s and Michael Hames-García’s Reclaiming Identity for helping me realize this.) That’s why I don’t use the phrase “as a gay man” anymore when I tell stories related to my sexual identity. In fact, I’ve identified as straight, gay, asexual and demisexual, and now I identify as bisexual. That understanding didn’t just smack me awake one morning: I arrived at it. I dug up repressed experiences; I interpreted new ones; I set wrong interpretations straight – pun vehemently intended!
The same goes for my understanding of racial hierarchies. It would be more confusing than clarifying for me to preface my statements on the subject with the phrase “as a white man.” What separates me from those 63 percent of white Americans who do not believe that race was a central issue in Ferguson? A different worldview.
Statements like “as a gay man” or “as a black woman” are calls for solidarity among people who inhabit an identity category. I appreciate how politically compelling it can be to think that Anderson’s interpretation of Ferguson would self-evidently arise from all black women’s experiences. But “experience as such” isn’t the sole variable in the equation. Take, for example, the Fox News debate on Ferguson between Dr. Ben Carson and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. In it, Carson claims, “If you take race out of the issue altogether, and you take a group of young men, and you raise them with no respect for authority, not learning to take on personal responsibility, and an easy access to drugs and alcohol, they’re very likely to end up as victims of violence and incarceration.” According to him, “That has nothing to do with race.” Jackson prefaces his rejoinder with this: “I wish Dr. Carson and I were up on that white panel you just had, because it does have a race dimension… Dr. Carson and I, we come out of a body of experience different than your previous guests’.” There’s truth in that observation – but how to explain their different interpretations? Is this debate a contest over who has the more legitimate claim to blackness? Please don’t tell me it is.
I want to be clear that the purpose of this article is not to critique Anderson’s usage of the phrase “as a black woman.” Nor am I clamoring for recognition that my heart, too, can bleed. I’ve tried to explore the political implications of claims to knowledge from experience. That knowledge, when built into a particular interpretation, can shake the foundations of any hierarchy. For the police, it can literally guide vision toward justice.
As for the question “Who is the shooter?” The answer shouldn’t be limited to “a white police officer.” Yes, he’s a white police officer, but he’s also a person with lots of contemplation to do about his relationship with racial hierarchies.
In that way, the shooter is like the rest of us.
Trent Woodward ’16
Contact Trent Woodward at trent21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.