Did the officers who shot and killed 12year-old Tamir Rice see him as a child? Did they see his sister, whom they threw in the back of a police cruiser, as a human being, distraught because her brother had been killed and she had been blocked from attending to him?
Did the officers who left Michael Brown’s body on the hot Ferguson, Mo. pavement for four hours after he had been shot and killed see him as a human being? Did they wonder how seeing their child lying dead on that pavement would affect his parents? Probably not…No nation can survive that has dehumanized its own citizens.
Violence against African Americans is not new. However, because of the widespread use of technology, issues of outright prejudice have come to the forefront of our screens. The recurring images of police brutality portrays it as a normalized practice, which feeds into perceptions that are used to rationalize discrimination. Spreading social awareness in this technologically advanced age has led to the dehumanization of the black body. Sharing these images is not the problem, rather the casual manner in which these representations unconsciously reinforce and perpetuate the ideology that the black body is less than. Social media makes us think that a retweet or repost, accompanied by a hashtag, means we are not feeding into the stereotypes surrounding blackness. The images of bodies that have been violently beaten, arrested, and shot to death, are scattered across the Internet, on social media platforms, and phones across the world. Black bodies are dehumanized when images of violently brutal scenarios are made available for public consumption.
Dehumanization strips individuals of their “human qualities, attributes, and rights” (Hairston, Kimetta R., and Hairston, 2011). It does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing social and psychological process that enables us to see an individual as less than human and “legitimize increased violence or justify the violation of basic human rights” (Hairston, Kimetta R., and Hairston, 2011). Although regularly seeing black bodies harmed on our television, laptop, and smartphone screens may evoke sympathy, in actuality, it contributes to the dehumanization process. The act of sharing these occurrences of police brutality is not prejudicial in itself, but it undermines the respect and “social protections from violence” that should be afforded to all human beings (Goph, Phillip, et al., 2014).
Our smartphones allow us to capture instances of prejudice towards black bodies—which often culminates in violence or brutality—and social media platforms serve as outlets for spreading these representations which reinforce dehumanizing ideologies. Ideologies are the “mental frameworks–the languages, concepts, categories, imagery of thought” used by social groups to understand what society values and how it operates (Hall, 1996). They are pervasive and can be damaging when they infringe on the rights of others. The media in all its past and present forms is used as a way to reproduce these ideologies, through whatever medium it chooses. By doing so, it constructs and defines race and the meaning of the imagery using signs and signifiers such as skin color (Hall, 2011). In this case, the ideology being reproduced in the videos and images of police brutality is that the black body does not deserve equal treatment. This idea is continually circulated through our screens causing society to become desensitized to them. The message sent is clear: the black body has no value. And from this stems continuous violence against African Americans by other racial groups and amongst themselves.
We have become cognizant of the way media unfairly represents black suspects. However, it is important that we also become acutely aware of other insidious modes of representation. Technology has made the public more aware of racial justice issues, and it has increasingly difficult (but not impossible) to ignore. Images may evoke empathy, but showing bodies in unfavourable scenarios is an act of continuous dehumanization. It reinforces the idea that black bodies do not deserve the same respect as others and strengthens the notion that it is built to withstand pain, torture, and suffering. Forget about compassion and focus on how these representations continue to feed into the ideologies that prejudice thrives on. So before assuming a role as an active social justice participant, think twice about sharing the next video that will surface on your timeline—because you know it will.
Goff, Phillip A., et al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing black Children.” Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 106, no. 4, 2014., pp. 526-545doi:10.1037/a0035663.
Hairston, Kimetta R., and Hairston. “Dehumanization of blacks.” Encyclopedia of Race and Crime, edited by Helen Taylor Greene, and Shaun L. Gabbidon, Sage Publications, 2009.
Hall, S. (1996). The problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees. In: Chen, K. and Morley, D. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. p24-45.
Hall, S. (2011). The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media. In: Dines, G. and Humez, J. M. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. London: Sage Publications. P81-84.
Smith, Susan. “The Price Of Dehumanization”. New Pittsburgh Courier. N.p., 2016. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
Wing, Nick. “When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than black Victims”. The Huffington Post. N.p., 2014. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.