The spectacularisation of racist violence

A confronting article by Zandria Robinson on an increasingly familiar topic — the spectacularisation of racist violence.

I watched the film (Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about the life and times of James Baldwin) last night. The extreme brutality — documentary and fictionalised — produces a cumulative effect of shock and awe, which is inevitably lensed through racial identification/dis-identification. I remember reading black writers talking about not wanting to see it in the cinema with a white audience present, or feeling angered or anguished at the disconnect between their own reactions and those of white viewers. And there’s Baldwin talking, throughout, with that tremendously satisfying and reassuring and relatable poetic intelligence, about precisely this disconnect. You could say the irony is palpable, but that’s perhaps not the feeling to be focusing on here.

The difficulty is that a glib or appropriative identification with others’ oppression would be a revolting encroachment; but at the same time, we (white people) have to get past acting and reacting as if all this violence and dehumanisation were not really a part of our world, as if we were screened off from it by precisely the screen that displays it, on command. We should revive in ourselves the ability to ask: how would the film be made, where would it be shown, how would it be received, what consequences would ensue, if this was contemporary footage of people in your life — friends, extended family, co-workers — being spat on, beaten and murdered?

When she was still a teenager, my mother was taken with a school party to watch newsreel footage of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. It was felt that this was an important thing to do. I don’t believe that the machinery of spectacularisation was working in quite the same way, at that moment. I think it was possible for her to feel and know that she was seeing people like her being gassed and starved and left to die of dysentery, that this was a real part of her own world and not something happening in some dim region of the past, to historic victims whose descendants really ought to have got over it by now. Of course these were the crimes of a recently-defeated enemy, and it was also possible to feel that “we” should ensure that “it” never happened again. But still: there was some degree of reckoning involved.