Brandon Brooks, the white teenager who filmed the violent attack by white police officers against black teenagers in McKinney, Texas, has been widely celebrated by mainstream media. Despite his young age and racial background, he poignantly analysed the racism (but not the racialised gender politics) inherent in the events. Brooks’ comments stood in stark contrast to the usual narrative of how white bodies perceive racism against racialised people. In a local television interview he went on to state that the white police officers saw beyond his white body. They considered him – despite demonstratively filming the police in action – invisible amongst his black and PoC friends, who were treated, or rather violated, as threats. In reverse this would mean: if a black or PoC teenager were to have filmed the events, we could rest assured that we would have neither documentation NOR widespread coverage of what happened in McKinney. The narrative would be a completely different one. If there were one to begin with.
Brooks’ decision to film the police’s actions was an act of protest. It provided, in the age of digitalisation when hearsay is deemed insufficient as mere evidence, visual testimony to racial injustices. This brings me back to the question of how our bodies are read in actions of protests and how being racialised impacts our ability to stand up against oppression.
Growing up in white supremacist societies many of us have been conditioned to work hard to remain invisible. The physical and emotional labour involved is draining and destructive. You risk years, sometimes decades and even generations building a security buffer around yourself, more specifically between yourself and white bodies. It is difficult and comes with a high price; higher than most white folks, whether allies or non-allies, would ever have to pay or consider. Under white supremacy we grow up internalising the criminalisation of our bodies and are taught from childhood life-saving lessons to circumvent these macro- and micro-aggressions. It is these many little moments that accumulate throughout our lives when we, for instance, pull the seatbelt tighter when the cops drive by, dress so as not to appear as threats, make sure that the supermarket bill is visible so we are not considered to be looters, or choose to not call out racism.
Throughout the last few years, public protests against austerity or institutional racism are regularly cited in media. The outspoken and courageous activists who involved are often times white. In the case of protests against deportations of asylum seekers, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is an overwhelming number, if not dominance, of white allies who are actively challenging the status quo. Activists standing up inside commercial planes to prevent the deportation of asylum seekers are, for instance, almost always white. I have always wondered whether I could socially or financially afford joining such protests. Would the airline, passengers, public, media and police treat me in a similar way to how they’d treat a white activist if I did the same? If I stood up in an overwhelmingly white plane as a racialised body in solidarity with another racialised body would I survive? What would the consequences be for me and my future, and that of my family and community?
As racialised people, our bodies, actions and politics are after all never just ours but those of collectives who we may never even associate or identify with. For women of colour and queers of colour this question is further complicated by how heteropatriarchy positions and violates their bodies.
Protesting means becoming visible. It means defying the status quo and is critical when considering the intersections of oppressions we live under and are complicit in. But – because of the very oppressions we fight – not all of us are positioned equally and come with the comfort of being able to, when practicing our political activism, get away with it as easily. Being fined, arrested or even caught by cameras often bears different consequences for racialised, gendered and class-marked bodies that aren’t sufficiently contemplated or talked about in activist circles.
It takes years to learn to assert our rights. Unlearning and resisting white supremacy requires active and constant labour. Irrespective of how much labour we put into it, however, we’ll always be positioned differently as long as white supremacy continues to be in place. As a result, we risk facing repercussions that non-racialised and middle-class activists never do or need to reflect about in the first place.
Our bodies are read and treated differently irrespective of whether we remain passive or actively challenge existing power structures. When racialised and working class people then tell white middle-class activist friends that they can’t join this or that protest, it’s for many of the very same reasons that we try to challenge. Being hypervisual throughout life and then also in protests against powerful institutions deems our bodies even further vulnerable than we already are to the everyday violence of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, casteism and neoliberalism.
The fact that Brandon Brooks, the white teenager, is left to document and tell the story of the events from last week in McKinney, Texas – but not the black teenagers who were violated – tells volumes about what it means to protest against white supremacy while being governed by white supremacy. It’s after all a privilege to be listened to, taken seriously and credited, just as much as it is a privilege to protest and walk away from it without physical, emotional, social and/or economic harm.
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Sinthujan Varatharajah is a doctoral student in Political Geography, where he researches resistance and agency within spaces of asylum. He tweets under @varathas
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