Nine people have been killed in a shooting that took place in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was on my way home from roller derby practice when I checked Twitter at a stop-light. No sources in the mainstream media were reporting much. Katie Couric was responding to someone's tweet about her being ageless. She quipped back that she uses the flash in her photos.
Sandwiched between her tweet were two others. These tweets were from handles of African Americans reporting a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Apparently the shooter attended a prayer meeting with his victims for about an hour before opening fire on the people who were there.
The media picked up the story, but it took them too long. The immediate posture was about peace and building empathy for the shooter. This is something that the media and our society does. This behavior is a formula for how society has kept racism embedded, always ensuring that a level of invalidation exists, by enacting the same tired narratives over and over again. Repetition leads to habituation. The African American community have heard these narratives so often that some of us have internalized them as our truths. THEY ARE NOT OUR TRUTH. If white people and people of color are involved in a tragedy or significant violence, media will follow a narrative matrix very consistently.
A. Determine any level of responsibility, guilt, or threat the victim/victims.
1. The "No Angel/Saint" Narrative calls for language that indicates that something in the victim's past or even most actions leading up to their experience in the "altercation" disqualifies the ability to be seen as a victim. This narrative will exploit things that, for a white individual, might be viewed as developmentally appropriate and acceptable. Hyperbolic language highly engaged in this narrative. For example: if half of a smoked joint is found on the body or belonging of the victim the victim was a drug dealer. Images of both the victim and the assailant will appear side by side. The victim will not be positively represented or will look (if male) intimidating and dark (if female) disheveled and unrepentant. Refer to female versus male "No Angel/Saint" narrative exceptions.
a. No Saint/Angel Male If the victim is male, words concerning aggression will be most prominent. The fear and concern for the assailants life will be established over the priority of the victim's innocence and/or rights to due process. If the No Saint/Angel was under-age the narrative will center around the stature and adult appearance of the individual, thus provoking and reinforcing the belief that Black and Brown people are sub-human.
b. No Saint/Angel Female If the victim is female, words concerning aggression will be present, but not the most prominent. Disrespectful behavior will be at the forefront of the conversation. The underlying message will be Black and Brown females don't behave well. This is related to both racism AND misogyny. The female No Saint/Angel will have her reproductive history highlighted and critiqued and her appearance evaluated. This harkens back to the ownership of the female black body as well as the disgust and exploitation paradox. Black and Brown females should be pushed for making white men want them. Black and Brown females are too sexual and create more Black and Brown children who suck society's resources. The female No Saint/Angel can also be guilty by association. If no seedy past is established for her the past of her past partners can be applied as long as they were minorities.
2. The Know Your Role Narrative calls for language that indicates that something in the immediate behavior of the victim was detestable enough to warrant violence or aggression against them. This is a particularly useful narrative against women of color.The Emasculating Female Asian Stereotype (they don't know their role). The Fiery Latin Woman Stereotype (they don't know their role). The Mouthy/Angry Black Woman Stereotype (They don't know their role)
3.The They Are Taking Over Narrative calls for playing on the fear of the White Conscience has concerning the distribution of resources, primarily power, with other races. Systemic racism arranged that people of color would never get ahead because they would be blocked from progress from the beginning. In this narrative the number of Black or Brown people are highlighted. Words relating to infestations, places being "at capacity," infections, and hostile takeover emerge in how the incident is communicated to the public. The number isn't always communicated, but the language gives the general sense that there were many brown and black individuals in a protected, valued, restricted, unwelcome, or unauthorized area. They likely " where not where they were supposed to be, busted in, broke in, showed up, or weren't invited (even if the place is public)."
B. If no victim guilt or responsibility can be established focus on the offender.
1. The Unjust Accusation Narrative calls for language that isn't afforded to people of color. Even if the guilty party in video and print confesses, the narrative will still have words like "accused" and "allegedly" present. White people are innocent until proven guilty. This narrative can also embody the intentions clause. The intentions clause is where the guilty party, those aligned with them, concede to the action and provides an escape for the behavior through the intention or undisclosed meaning. This is employed even when the evidence contradicts intention. A police officer shoots and unarmed minority in the back and head: I didn't intend to fire a fatal shot, I just wanted to protect myself [the intention clause]. I felt threatened [the no saint/angel narrative].
2. The Those People Are All Violent Narrative calls for highlights of statistics of crime related to the minority group. There will be highlights of hate mail or death threats received even if those threats didn't come from the victim of violence and aggression. Typically these threats are brought up after the incident and highlighted as a way of reminding that the group the victim came from is inherently violent (therefore warranting their own violence and death). Hyperbolic language is also employed in this narrative. Black victims don't run toward people, they charge (like animals) etc.
3. The Mental Illness Narrative calls for building empathy through postulating how the guilty individuals may not have been in their right mind. This narrative is a double-down on the Unjust Accusation Narrative combined with an assertion about the guilty individuals agency. This narrative approach also seeks to deny the way that systemic racism may have allowed an individual to see the victim in harmful enough ways to enact aggression or violence toward them.
4. The Circumstantial Narrative calls for consideration of details. Wait till we hear all the details. This narrative emphasizes the dynamic of white people being presumed innocent versus people of color being suspect. This narrative can also be an attempt to explain away responsibility. He answered two suicide calls before he pulled his gun on unarmed and unthreatening black children.
5. The Blame Shift calls for debating who is really at fault by assigning responsibility to systems, objects, and experiences that can never be prosecuted. He wasn't violent until he started playing those video games.
6. Compare Contrast calls for a quick response to the violence and aggression by providing evidence of another inverse situation. A Black Cop shot a white kid just the other day, but no one is calling that a hate crime.
7. The Abandon The Cause Narrative calls for an emphasis that proposes to leads victims to a singular line of thinking. This narrative is typically employed when the guilt of the offender is undeniable. This line of thinking is: It was one man/woman. This was isolated. In this narrative the attempt is made to abandon the guilty individual and write them emphasize that there is no connectivity or precedence for the incident in question. Even in the face of evidence showing pathological hate from the guilty individual toward the people group the victim belong to, Abandon the Cause will be used to emphasis an anomaly. This narrative is a last ditch effort and also serves to protect the White Conscience from being established as a violent race. If every individual of the white race who is found guilty beyond a shadow of doubt ends up being an anomaly there can be no trend established.
These are the narratives I've seen employed each time social media swells with news of racially charged activity. I've likened this behavior to a pathological acceptance of victim blaming. Minorities have been in a domestic violent and psychologically abusive relationship with our society for our entire history. When we attempt to the break the cycle by calling out our reality, we are gas-lighted. Knowing what narratives inform how people approach telling the stories of racial violence matters. It matters, even if it never changes, because it helps us guard against internalizing those narratives and accepting them when we are too hopeless and tired to fight.
*originally published June 18th, 2015*