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On Diamond Reynolds after Dallas

Dallas has happened. But I want us to think carefully about Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile. Castile was recently killed in Minnesota by a police officer during what should have otherwise been a routine stop. Reynolds live streamed the event on Facebook.

I have repeatedly watched that video of her narrating the incident, as Castile sits next to her dying. I have watched this video in the spirit of the 1834 American Anti-Slavery Society pamphlet campaign motto, KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, and the NAACP anti-lynching pamphlet campaign that often redeployed lynching photographs to get the audience to properly calibrate their emotions and actions to the moral gravity of the issue. I have listened to commentators reflect on Reynolds’s composure. They often use her composure–her calm and collected demeanor–as an indication of her credibility. For both black and white commentators, her composure signals her trustworthiness as a witness.

I applaud Reynolds for what she has done; it is nothing short of extraordinary. From her recent comments, it is clear that Reynolds realized that being calm was necessary, both for the sake of trying to achieve justice for her boyfriend, and to ensure that she and her daughter made it out alive.

But we need to be very clear about what is going on here. At the very moment these commentators often join Reynolds in seeking justice for her boyfriend and equal deployment of the law to rightly punish the officer, they remind us of the unequal status of black folks.

We would never expect others to display such composure in the face of such traumatic circumstances. We would not penalize their failure of self-control by tying it to untrustworthiness. In fact, we think, and rightly, that emotional eruptions at precisely this moment are appropriate. We think this, I suggest, because the gravity of the situation often elicits this from us. You have just lost a loved one, under horrific circumstances, and by one who is otherwise meant to protect and serve. It makes prefect sense to come undone in that moment, since the emotional eruption is often, at any rate, a judgment of value about the entire event.

And yet, we find ourselves holding Reynolds and other black folks, often women, to a higher standard as a prerequisite to be considered trustworthy, capable of accurately recounting the injustice that has just been committed against them. In doing so, we commit another form of violence, the reverberations of which most assuredly affects the mental health of black folks, reminding us, yet again, that what is expected of Black Americans is not expected of whites. It is demanded that we hold in and contain what should rightly be released: screams and tears. In short, pain. The American public demands this because the presumption of a dishonest black person, already in circulation in our culture, is intensified by the sight of an emotional black person.

And then, as Reynolds finally comes undone, as she finally releases what others are permitted to release without question, we hear her daughter now performing her mother’s earlier composure: “It’s ok mommy, I’m here with you.”

There is strength on display in this moment, but it is strength that we should not demand of anyone, adult or child. Shame on you and this country for repeatedly doing this to black Americans.

Melvin Rogers

  • Valerie C. Cooper

    It explains the high blood pressure, the strokes, etc. We demand superhuman strength from black people and fault them if they show human weaknesses.

    http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2013/08/racism_and_high_blood_pressure.html

    • Melvin Rogers

      Indeed!

  • laslanian

    This is interesting and I never thought about it this way. It makes me angrier, but I am not sure much will change that in the immediate term. The FOX news crew is busy blaming Dallas on Obama and we are overlooking another police shooting of an unarmed black man (or person). Rodney King. I mean, it has to stop. The police who commit crimes, caught on tape and not disputable, go to jail. Also why is it so hard for people to imagine why many black people do not trust the police? Seriously, have we grown less compassionate or less able to simply empathize or identify?

    • Melvin Rogers

      To confront why so many black folks don’t trust the police would involve confronting the many horrors of being black in America. And this, you see, is difficult for many to do, especially those who hold to the idea that the country has changed. That the country has moved beyond white supremacy.

      • ronnieb1958

        part of the agenda of white supremacy is to diminish and dismiss the pain and suffering that it is inflicting on the groups they are dominating…the disdain that many white folk have against Black Lives Matter (and the negative projections heaped upon it…ie. divisive, “racist”, etc.) is because Black people protesting in the streets disturbs white folks casual indifference; a reminder that the legacy of enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, the ongoing institutional bias killing the country is a creation of their own making…whether you be part of the elite that created and maintain the institutional division or the general white society who tacitly approve it.

        • laslanian

          When I say I don’t get it anymore, I mean that I don’t get why we have such a hard time as a culture, country, etc. acknowledging that we are still racist, and that the racism is woven into every institution and even our perceptions or observations as you note. I get the power a white person enjoys may be something s/he does not even know s/he has, but I do not get the collective inability to acknowledge that power, that reality, when it is brought to our attention. It has been such a saddening few weeks. I remember Rodney King and the riots that followed.

          I don’t approve of it. I am disgusted.

          • laslanian

            And I agree that black people are held to a different standard. This is especially true when media blames the dead man for having a record of misdemeanors. Can you imagine if white teenagers were being killed by law enforcement and the news coverage was about the time he smoked pot in high school? When it flipped like that and people don’t get it, I am at a loss.

          • ronnieb1958

            when you speculate, “can you imagine if white teenagers were being killed by law enforcement and the news coverage was about the time he smoked pot in high school?” you are acknowledging (maybe without you realizing it) that scenario would not be tolerated…it is proof that all lives don’t equally matter…that white lives matter MORE…and that when that sad reality is brought to white folks attention they respond with anger, denial and recriminations…

          • laslanian

            No I meant to point out the reality that we would never tolerate it. I was saying it as an obvious comparison. Moreover, like I think I said, we would never tolerate the blaming of the victim for trivial transgressions. I was trying to expose how obvious the racism is. I cannot say why we cannot have a national conversation that acknowledges how this racism works— I don’t get the anger and denial anymore.

          • ronnieb1958

            I get you…i was just reinforcing your point…sorry if i wasn’t clear…the anger and denial is the natural response of not wanting to be associated with something so heinous…Black people as individuals have to bear the burden of having been the victims of exclusion and stereotyping…white people as individuals refuse to acknowledge their complicity and responsibility for being the group guilty of doing the excluding…white people think that avoiding the conversation will make everything go away…it won’t.

          • laslanian

            I don’t understand the defensiveness of white people anymore. I have heard it repeatedly and I don’t understand it (intellectually I get it but I don’t get it with my heart). It is really not so difficult to acknowledge the racism that allows cops to get away with murder and know that at the same time you are not personally responsible for it. I don’t think we have to think of ourselves as individually heinous. It is like we cannot apologize because we feel like we are confessing to greater sins…..

          • ronnieb1958

            laslanian, the “greater sin” is INDIFFERENCE…white society is fully aware that there is a caste system in place with white people occupying the top rung…established straight from the founding fathers…now within that white caste are various levels of privilege; but be ye prince or peon, the one glaring advantage is you’re not Black…there isn’t a white person on this planet that would exchange places with a Black person…the defensiveness you mention springs from the recognition that white folk are perfectly content to let the boot of racial bias crush the life out of Black folk…why?…because it’s not happening to them…that’s an embarrassing thing to have to acknowledge…knowing that you have an unjust GROUP advantage and that you are a member of the group that enforced that unjust advantage by violence and by the writ of law…

  • Emmryss

    Thank you for bringing this reality into whatever discussion might hopefully ensue.

  • Otis Redmon

    AWESOMELY TRUTHFUL

  • Sakonya1

    This “Superhuman” syndrome is a problem in and of itself, and deserves further examination as a mental health issue.

  • Mary Hunt

    My first thought, when I watched her video, was that she was in shock. I can’t even imagine what was going through her mind, but what a horrible thing to have to live through.

  • This article helped me to look more closely at the micropolitics of the tragedies in Minnesota and Dallas, illuminating the depth of our problems. It is hard to conceive of ways to address this even among people of good will, but we must, and the writing of this piece, and reading it helps. Thank you Melvin.

  • Alice Crary

    Thank you for this piece and for shedding light on an important and too easily overlooked dimension of this tragedy. I take your remarks to heart and will share them widely, starting tomorrow with students.

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