Tuesday, July 16, 2013

When black people's responses are configured as incomprehensible

By Therí A. Pickens 

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, I turned to CNN for news. After all, that's what it's there for. As with most corporate media, it has a meager complexity and try as it might (though I'm not sure it tries at all), it still manages to make me ill at ease.

There was much discussion about people "rioting" after the verdict. In an effort to quell public rage and mute the expression of confusion and anger, pundits and newscasters (are there any journalists anymore?) Asked people to be calm and peaceful. As a disabled member of society, my rage stays muted generally, but my sympathies are with those who felt the need to publicly demonstrate their feelings. Certainly, I do not endorse rioting, but I am all for public marches, vigils, and gatherings that display the strange combination of grief, anger, faith, and cynicism.

As though it wasn't enough to ask the injured to not emote after being injured, the talking heads on CNN uncritically used "crazy" to describe those who would attack George Zimmerman or those who would riot. These so-called crazy people were somehow seen as markedly different from those who would peacefully protest. Implicitly, they were seen as outliers among those decent folk of color and their allies.

Immediately, Douglas Baynton's work sprang to mind. His article "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History" (recently reprinted in The Disability Studies Reader 4th Edition) details the ways that discourses of ability and blackness have been intertwined. Upon hearing that only the "crazy" would "riot," it struck me that  “yet again" understandable responses to injustice by black people were being configured as so incomprehensible so as to be madness. Consider the modern version of drapetomania.

Fascinating though how the logics of this admonition against violence work. People are being asked to stay away from the kind of vigilante justice that just received state sanction. But, like the verdict, this is not surprising even though it is heartbreaking. Hegemonic discourse always finagles its way into the spaces it feels most comfortable. Here, that space is hostile to the full humanity of people of color.

As I said to the young man who called me a bitch in an effort to voice solidarity on Twitter, I urge us to be careful in our language. There are those who have been classified as mad or crazy. Their backs are bent under the weight of structures of oppression similar to and not divorced from the ones that were laid bare on Saturday night. It is possible to be advocates of justice of all kinds simultaneously. It is necessary to articulate our anger with the clarity and precision that comes from respect of other people's experiences.

Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for the black studies site.    

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