Sean Bell (2006), Oscar Grant (2009), Trayvon Martin (2012), Kendrec McDade (2012), Johnathan Ferrell (2013), Kimani Gray (2013), Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Laquan McDonald (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Sandra Bland (2015), Walter Scott (2015), Freddie Gray (2015), Natasha McKenna (2015), Christian Taylor (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castille (2016), Ahmaud Arbery (2020), Breonna Taylor (2020), George Floyd (2020).
Now go back and read every single name on that list.
This is just a small selection of all the black people that have lost their lives to white cops in the last 15 years, because how many more weren’t caught on video? By now everyone knows what has happened to George Floyd as a result of the video going viral. The implications however are immense. Suddenly the world is standing up against racism, with protests everywhere. Statues of colonizers are being torn down; in Belgium our colonial history has finally been added to the mandatory curriculum in school. And yet, protestors are being criticized for being reckless showing up in such numbers because of the ongoing pandemic. Racism however has been ongoing for at least 400 years. The change these protests are demanding is long overdue.
Vanessa Charlot (@vanessa.charlot) is a Haitian-American freelance documentary photographer based in Miami, Florida. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of spirituality, socio-economic issues and sexual/gender expression. As so many black photographers, she took to the streets to document this historical moment from the only perspective that can do it justice:
George Floyd's public lynching has become a moment in American history that has moved me to make photographs that dismantle the false notions of propriety. My work has always centered black and brown life in a way that is free from the white gaze. Where black people are able to be seen as beautifully complex. As a documentary photographer and black woman in America I am very clear that this is the only option that exists for me. An inner resolve to capture images of black resilience and resistance, not in comparison to but in spite of.
Vanessa Charlot
© Vanessa Charlot
This is why it is so important to let Black people tell their own stories, to make room for them, because their point of view is different from ours. The male vs female gaze is already a well-known concept, now let the white vs black gaze become one too. As white photographers, we can never look at people of color (POC) without showing our ‘otherness’, what sets us apart. Even if the intention is to show the beauty of that, it cannot surpass the beauty of ‘sameness’, understanding and celebration that show through the eyes of photographers that share the point of view of their subjects. This is more important than ever regarding the protests.
Charlot explains: “Essentially I believe what Dr. King was saying is that when people resort to rioting it is from a place of pain and being unheard, ignored and oppressed for over 400 years. What you see is the manifestation of frustration from being dehumanized. It has always been bad for black people in America, but there are moments in history that incite the expression of this constant state of rage.”
So, for anyone who’s confused as to why so many people are leaving their houses to stand up against the system while a pandemic is still threatening us, try to imagine that your life is in danger every single day of your life, for generations on end. Some people protested because they couldn’t get a haircut because of the Covid lockdown, hopefully that puts protesting for your life in perspective. I can hear several but moments coming. But why put everyone in more danger by protesting in such large groups, there must be a better way to bring the issue to light than this. Is there though? Plenty of methods have been tried, one of the most famous is bending the knee during the national anthem; we just didn’t listen. But in Europe things aren’t as bad as in the United States, there is no need for such protest here. Except the exact same thing happened in France to Adama Traoré in July 2016, who died as a result of police brutality. But why all the looting and violence, how do they expect us to take them seriously when they’re destroying property? Looting is the ultimate strike against a system that values property over human lives, it is humanity demanding to be recognized when all other options have failed. And the violence is staged more often than not, either by cops in disguise who start fights as an excuse to use over the top control measures in an otherwise peaceful protest, or by white people who use the protests as a cover to get something out of it for themselves. And if you really want to get into looting, ask yourself how all the Nation History museums are filled with artefacts and how they got there in the first place. But we’ll know who to blame if a second wave of Covid-19 hits us! Do we? Because at least as many people spent the first chance they got in parks, on beaches and on the terrace of their favorite restaurants and bars, where social distancing is equally hard to control. So, don’t be fooled. It is easy to put the blame on the protestors, but ask yourself why we’re so ready to pass the blame.
Vanessa Charlot
© Vanessa Charlot
Great, you’ve gotten this far. Now what? You’ve seen the lists of books to read and movies/series to watch, you’ve possibly even saved a few screenshots on your phone promising yourself that you’ll make time to actually work yourself through them. Because it will be work, it won’t be easy, and it will not feel like the thing you want to pick up after a long day. But you should do it nonetheless, because that is what privilege entails; having the choice to deal with the issues or to put it away for another day. And once you’ve made the effort to learn, you’ll realize that those racist jokes aren’t that funny anymore. You’ll understand the pain they cause. Then it won’t be so hard confronting your friends and family about them, because you’ll feel it sting too, knowing it isn’t even close to the real pain black people deal with every day.
And then it gets harder again, because once you get to this stage, you’ll see why it is not enough to call people out on their ‘jokes’. These hurtful actions are a mere top of the iceberg of a centuries old system that needs to be broken with a wrecking ball and built from scratch. If we don’t act against it, we uphold it. That is why ‘not being racist’ as an individual isn’t enough, because the system is still in place. Racism manifests itself in complex ways; privilege, access, ignorance and apathy are only a few. So, it is up to us to reform the system that our ancestors built, to make up for their entitlement. And how do we do that? The same way we demand men to make room for women, to close the pay gap, shatter the glass ceiling, and create equal opportunities; we need to make space for black people, demand that they be treated with respect. It’s our responsibility to make it happen, not theirs. That is what it means to truly stand by them in this fight.