Dallas has happened. But I want us to think carefully about Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile. Castile was recently killed in Minnesota by a police officer during what should have otherwise been a routine stop. Reynolds live streamed the event on Facebook.
I have repeatedly watched that video of her narrating the incident, as Castile sits next to her dying. I have watched this video in the spirit of the 1834 American Anti-Slavery Society pamphlet campaign motto, KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, and the NAACP anti-lynching pamphlet campaign that often redeployed lynching photographs to get the audience to properly calibrate their emotions and actions to the moral gravity of the issue. I have listened to commentators reflect on Reynolds’s composure. They often use her composure–her calm and collected demeanor–as an indication of her credibility. For both black and white commentators, her composure signals her trustworthiness as a witness.
I applaud Reynolds for what she has done; it is nothing short of extraordinary. From her recent comments, it is clear that Reynolds realized that being calm was necessary, both for the sake of trying to achieve justice for her boyfriend, and to ensure that she and her daughter made it out alive.
But we need to be very clear about what is going on here. At the very moment these commentators often join Reynolds in seeking justice for her boyfriend and equal deployment of the law to rightly punish the officer, they remind us of the unequal status of black folks.
We would never expect others to display such composure in the face of such traumatic circumstances. We would not penalize their failure of self-control by tying it to untrustworthiness. In fact, we think, and rightly, that emotional eruptions at precisely this moment are appropriate. We think this, I suggest, because the gravity of the situation often elicits this from us. You have just lost a loved one, under horrific circumstances, and by one who is otherwise meant to protect and serve. It makes prefect sense to come undone in that moment, since the emotional eruption is often, at any rate, a judgment of value about the entire event.
And yet, we find ourselves holding Reynolds and other black folks, often women, to a higher standard as a prerequisite to be considered trustworthy, capable of accurately recounting the injustice that has just been committed against them. In doing so, we commit another form of violence, the reverberations of which most assuredly affects the mental health of black folks, reminding us, yet again, that what is expected of Black Americans is not expected of whites. It is demanded that we hold in and contain what should rightly be released: screams and tears. In short, pain. The American public demands this because the presumption of a dishonest black person, already in circulation in our culture, is intensified by the sight of an emotional black person.
And then, as Reynolds finally comes undone, as she finally releases what others are permitted to release without question, we hear her daughter now performing her mother’s earlier composure: “It’s ok mommy, I’m here with you.”
There is strength on display in this moment, but it is strength that we should not demand of anyone, adult or child. Shame on you and this country for repeatedly doing this to black Americans.