I am really affected by scenes of violence. I can’t watch fictional depictions of violent acts. I get too upset. It stays with me for days and weeks, surfacing at inopportune times. And so, I naturally have tended to avoid watching viral videos of people being killed. I didn’t watch the Walter Scott video (the man who was shot while running away from officers back in April 2015). I chose my comfort when confronted with these digital witnesses. Always.
In the past few days, the dash cam video that captured the last few moments of Philando Castile’s life were released to the public. I was already heartsick about the acquittal of his killer. I wasn’t going to watch. And then I watched Trevor Noah’s bit about it on my Facebook feed. Noah said “Yesterday on the show, we spoke about the killing of Philando Castile and the verdict that exonerated the police officer who shot him. And honestly, I thought that I felt all I could feel about this story — until I got home, and I watched a newly released video. And if you have already watched this video, you don’t have to watch it again. I wouldn’t say anyone has to watch this video, but if you haven’t seen it, it is graphic, and you probably should watch it. And we’re going to play it for you now.”
I watched it.
It was as bad as I thought it would be. Worse. My heart raced. I felt a wave of nausea. The tears welled when their little girl gets out of the back door.
As the Trevor Noah bit continued, Noah came back and said, “I won’t lie to you. When I watched this video, it broke me. It just — it broke me. You see so many of these videos, and you start to get numb, but this one? Seeing the child, that little girl, getting out of the car, after watching a man get killed, it broke my heart into little pieces.”
Noah got it right. It broke me.
And then I realized, my choice to NOT watch, the choice to not be broken, to go on with my comfortable day, that choice is my white privilege at work. It is the privilege of not really having to worry that I or my husband will end up dead if our brake lights are out.
And suddenly I remembered a story I read about a year and a half ago. A professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design wrote in December of 2015 about being stopped by cops because he “fit the description” of a suspect. His first-person account of the ordeal—which, in his case involved abuse to his dignity and soul not his body—is harrowing. He relates the dismissive reaction of a white passerby, and contrasts it with a Black woman who watches from the distance. He writes:
I noticed a black woman further down the block. She was small and concerned. She was watching what was going on. I focused on her red coat. I slowed my breathing. I looked at her from time to time.
I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.
Once the cops confirm that he is not the guy they’re looking for, the woman in the red coat comes to check on him.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “Thank you for staying.”
“Are you ok?” She said. Her small beautiful face was lined with concern.
“Not really. I’m really shook up. And I have to get to work.”
“I knew something was wrong. I was watching the whole thing. The way they are treating us now, you have to watch them. ”
“I’m so grateful you were there. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t leave, sister.’ May I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” she said. She held me as I shook. “Are you sure you are ok?”
“No I’m not. I’m going to have a good cry in my car. I have to go teach.”
After reading this account in 2015, I remember saying a little prayer: “HaShem, please help me to be the woman in red and not the dismissive woman. Help me to always see humanity. Help me to work against injustice, and when it is all I can do, let me at least bear witness. Let me be the sister who stays.” Even as I recognized how important the woman in red was to the professor for whom she bore witness, I imagined myself strong and important on a street corner. I was centering myself in my imagination. not the person who needed me to stay. And hence my avoidance of the uncomfortable videos.
Trevor Noah pushed me to live up to my prayer. He made me remember that change cannot come from comfort. That video is horrible. I am changed for having watched it. And that is what it takes to be the sister who stays. That is what it takes to bear witness. For Philando Castile and for Diamond Reynolds and for their
little girl. That little girl who is the same age as my own little girl.
Join me in the discomfort. Let us bear witness. Let us be changed through our discomfort, and through our collective discomfort, let us change the world.