The threat of blackness

I was with a few friends watching an episode of a show called Just For Laughs: Gags. It’s something similar to ‘Candid Camera’, where random passers-by are placed in comical situations, caught on hidden camera. The humour of the show is watching people try to react appropriately to an implausible situation: a man’s car is ‘stolen’ after he has asked someone to watch it for him; a woman dressed as a lion tamer runs in fear past some unsuspecting person, pursued closely by a confederate dressed in a lion costume. The payoff of the show comes at the end of each segment, when the unwitting participant is shown the cameras, and everyone has a good laugh.

The recent episode I was watching presented a pair of men dressed as police officers with a WANTED poster of a thief dressed as a clown. They approach the unwitting ‘target’, who has just agreed to hold a garbage bag for a confederate as they go into a store. The police open the bag, find clown garb (including a big red nose and a rainbow wig) inside, and begin interrogating the ‘target’, dressing hir in the attire and remarking on the resemblance. Ignoring the ‘targets’ protestations of innocence, the faux police produce handcuffs and announce that the person is under arrest.

Of course, the police then point out the hidden cameras, and the ‘accused’ people share a relieved laugh with the actors. I turned to one of my friends and remarked “notice how they didn’t show any of the black people laughing”. She shot me a wry smile as we reflected on the fact that being stopped by the police and threatened with arrest for a crime you haven’t committed is no laughing matter when you live in a community where the colour of your skin makes you suspect. Indeed, I would imagine that if I had been one of the ‘targets’ on the show, this kind of thing would be very much at the front of my mind:

During Memorial Day weekend, [Tremaine] McMillian was rough-housing with another teenager on the sand. Police approached the teen on an ATV and told him that wasn’t acceptable behavior. They asked him where his parents were, but MicMillian attempted to walk away. The officer jumped off the ATV, and tried to physically restrain the teen. According to CBS Miami, police say the 14-year-old kid gave them “‘dehumanizing stares,’ clenched his fists and appeared threatening.”

McMillian says he was carrying a six-week old puppy at the time and couldn’t have been clenching his fists because he was feeding the dog with a bottle. He claims that during the confrontation the dog’s front left paw was injured while officer forcibly separated him from the dog.

The officer then forced McMillian to the ground and put him in a choke hold.

My deepest sympathies, of course, go out to the officers who were so traumatized by the withering gaze of a 14 year-old kid that they felt they had no other choice but to physically assault him. It’s a wonder the poor dears weren’t permanently traumatized. I am taking up a collection to cover their psychologists bills. There’s nothing worse than being “dehumanized” by someone’s eyes – except, maybe, being dehumanized by two adult police officers as they choke you on the ground for the crime of standing there.

Of course, the comments following the post* are full of people rationalizing the arrest and brutality by blaming McMillian for failing to be ‘respectful’ to the police officers. If he had just answered their questions and been sufficiently deferential, they wouldn’t have choked and arrested him. It’s his own fault, really. Never mind that there was no crime committed until the police put their hands on the kid, at which point his failure to collapse into a quivering pile of compliant goo was “resisting arrest” and “disorderly conduct” (yes, these are actual felony charges being leveled against him).

Of course we’ve talked about this a couple of times before on this blog: there are serious consequences to failing to appear subservient before white men in perceived positions of authority – consequences that fall disproportionately and violently on black bodies (and probably female bodies too, although that violence manifests itself differently). McMillian undoubtedly knew this, and had perhaps experienced it first-hand before. Black kids are trained about how to bow and scrape when interrogated by white authorities, lest they suffer exactly this kind of treatment (that usually results in zero consequences to the offending police officers), just as their forebears learned that the ‘proper place’ of a Negro was as inferior to the white majority.

I know that if I was harassed by police officers, I would resent it. If I had a close friend or family member who had been similarly victimized by police, I’d be pretty hostile to their questioning me for the offence of being black in public. Knowing what I know about Florida, I’d probably be particularly incensed that two yokels who managed to stumble their way into uniforms were treating me the way black folks have been treated in the South for generations – holding themselves exalted by virtue of the fact that their skin is lighter than mine. Who knows, I might have the impulse to look at the assembled forces of the armed wing of a white supremacist civil society as, perhaps, something other than human.

In other words, I don’t see anything unusual or exceptional about the anger that McMillian felt when he was accosted by the officers. What I do find extreme (but, after all, not surprising) is the fact that his anger, when filtered through the prism of a black male body, is ‘threatening’ enough to warrant violent restraint. And what I find perverse about this is the fact that while blackness is not threatening, the burden is placed on black bodies – both in public opinion and in the minds of the police – to somehow make themselves more ‘acceptable’, at the risk of becoming the victims of physical violence.

Not exactly a laughing matter.

*Yeah yeah, I know, but I can’t help myself sometimes.


  1. CaitieCat says

    That’s digusting (the Miami thing).

    And Just for Laughs is a vile show, premised on humiliating people in public, filming it, and then putting it on TV to humiliate them before a larger audience.

    I’m struck by how this post of yours is a solid answer to those of us who have white privilege and insist they don’t see how they do: many times, privilege is shown by the absence of something negative that other people have to take for granted – like being Black and stopped by a cop. In this case, my privilege is something I won’t see unless I actually talk to some Black people, to find out how (reasonably!) different our views of a potential police stop are.

    The same applies at any interaction with the security state: the white privilege comes in notautomatically being a suspect based on the colour of your skin.

    Good post, Crom.

  2. Mario says

    I remember one episode of the Fresh Prince, when Will and Carlton drive the Mercedes to a party where Carlton’s parents are. They lose their way and are driving real slow and of course the police pulls them over. They are suspected of being carthieves and a whole lot of quite funny confusion follows. But at the end, Carlton is talking with his father about being pulled over. Carlton tells his father that if he was a police officer, he would have stopped the car for driving so slow, nothing to do with driving while black. His dad replied, with a sad look on his face: “Yeah, that’s what I tried to tell myself the first time I was pulled over”. A bit of the real world in a comedy show. And it seems nothing much has changed.

  3. smrnda says

    I find many white people don’t understand that there is a good reason why if a young Black male is told to stop by the police, running and resisting might actually be very rational choices. Plenty of young Black males get hauled to the station, beat up, and then are forced to confess from crimes that they have no possibility of committing, have drugs planted on them, and get put away for decades, so ‘cooperation’ with police doesn’t always work out in the end. We have a whole demographic faced with a lose/lose situation when it comes to the police.

  4. kestra says

    I live in a city well-known both for the high percentage of black people living here and for terrible riots that virtually destroyed whole neighborhoods after the assassination of Dr. King. The local papers and blogs, as a matter of course, often cover violent crime, and those comment sections are always swarming with people making extremely racist comments about the victim, the perpetrator, or both, whether or not their race is reported in the story. The most printable word they tend to use is “savages”. And my city has one the highest per capita level of college education of any in the US.

    Remember after Obama was elected and all those comedians were making a lot of hay over the “racism is over!” meme? I didn’t think it was all that funny then, but it gets less funny with each year that passes.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … dehumanizing stares…

    You don’t understand. The kid’s mojo was so strong he put a hoodoo on them, and changed them into animals.

    No, they didn’t get better.

  6. mythbri says


    I remember that episode. It was probably one of my first exposures to the way that I benefit from the fact that my skin is light.

    And I really don’t want to be one of those people who has to view every kind of oppression through the lens of the oppression that most affects me, but I can’t help but see the parallels between what happened to this young man (and his dog!) and the way that women are blamed for the ways in which they are oppressed and victimized. So much of it is placing the burden of being non-threatening on the oppressed, and now apparently “de-humanizing looks” is A Thing. :/

    I’m going to have to start practicing that in the mirror.

  7. kestra says

    Oooh, forgot about this until now. This is an *amazing* documentary about how the perception of blackness and criminality came to be conflated in the post-bellum South as part of the Jim Crow system that re-introduced de facto slavery. It should be required viewing for every American citizen:

  8. Karen Locke says

    This sort of thing isn’t limited to the South by any means. My Northern California area has a large Latino population, as well as a lot of people from South and East Asia. Who gets targeted by cops out of all proportion? The Latinos, of course.

    Even off-duty cops get targeted for driving while brown or black.

    But if you’re white, or Asian, cops are polite and helpful… unless you’re waving a vegetable peeler or some such sinister instrument.

  9. Brandon says

    But if you’re white, or Asian, cops are polite and helpful…

    This is not my experience, at all. I’m a “clean looking” young white guy whose experiences have taught him to fear and avoid police as well. I’m not pulling any sort of “I have it just as bad!” crap, just saying that being white is not a free pass for avoiding trouble with police.

    I surely wouldn’t enjoy the experience described in the blog post. I’d be simultaneously scared and angry, feeling a sort of impotent rage that I only ever experience when I know I did nothing wrong, but I’m going to be hurt anyway. I can only imagine just how much more unpleasant it’d be with a racial tinge added.

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