Public Empathy Must Not Be Reserved Only for “Perfect Victims”

Public Empathy Must Not Be Reserved Only for “Perfect Victims”

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at The Guardian and Creative Time



I have four Black brothers, and I call them every day to confirm that they are not yet dead.

This macabre ritual takes place somewhere between the 7pm run of Jeopardy and my bedtime chamomile tea. In measured speech we pretend that we are regular people without routinized fears of an eventual death at the hands of someone who fears the cadence of our speech or our gait. We skate through the preamble, banter about pets and Facebook memes, then ease into the meat.

“How was your day?” I ask. One brother chuckles and says, “Well, no one shot me, so I think it’s been a good day. But you know, there are still a few hours left.” My staccato laugh fills the awkward silence. I fear not only that my brothers will be killed but that their limp bodies will never elicit empathy; Black people killed by law enforcement or deputized whites rarely do, and this normalizes and perpetuates the violence.

Because for Black people to be seen as victims and worthy of empathy, they must be exemplary and angelic. Free of blemish, nothing ambiguous or messy.

Trayvon Martin was deemed undeserving because his autopsy revealed that he had used marijuana. Sandra Bland was too assertive. Tamir Rice, a child, should not have been playing with a toy gun. Michael Brown was a “thug”, Freddie Gray the offspring of drug addicts.

The “perfect victim” narrative leaves fallible human beings hemmed in by the impossibility of innocence and the eventual reveal of their complicated humanity. Instead of focusing on healing and getting justice, a family must create a dutiful postmortem image that allows their child to be memorialized. It must be suffocating to wage a public relations campaign to assert humanity.

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