In light of the recent spate of publicized killings between police officers and black men and the suicide of comic legend Robin Williams there are a lot of people trying to compare tragedies today. Of course, comparing tragedies is not only wrong but unnecessary. We all feel what we feel. But that’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on WHY people are making the comparisons because once you unpack that, you find that maybe you didn’t forget to pack your humanity after all…it was just buried under your distress slippers and your matching agenda pajamas.
The problem looks like this: Black people have been pushing to get attention called to the killings because, while we know this kind of thing happens all of the time, it doesn’t get any media shine. So when we think we’ve got a stone-cold murder in our sights – on video, trending on Twitter, being covered by national news outlets – we don’t want to lose that momentum. When something like that hits the news there’s the hope that something will change because of it. (We’re usually proven wrong, but that’s why it’s called “hope” not “experience.”) Seeing black issues in mainstream news is like being spit on in the back of the classroom every day by a bully that never gets caught and, no matter how often you inform your teacher that you’re being spit on, nothing happens, until one day the teacher turns around and sees, with her own eyes, phlegm flying out of the bully’s mouth and into your hair. While the teacher was unable to stop you from being spit on, they have to act now, and the bully is sent to the principal’s office for punishment. That’s what seeing major black news on white news stations is like: finally getting the teacher’s attention so that someone can remove the bully.
And the media was doing a moderately decent job the last couple of days, though we owe more to the reactionary protests and riots in Missouri than some enterprising reporter sniffing up a good lead. They were running accounts of eyewitnesses, asking tough questions, comparing it to the recent choking in NYC of Eric Garner…really putting it out there.
And then Robin Williams died.
Here’s where the problem crystallized: people in the midst of frustration and in the process of building serious platforms of action (or at least address) on a series of heinous crimes watched as their social network tickers flipped, almost instantly, to mentions of Williams. News broadcasts weren’t suddenly ignoring what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri, but they now had to carve out significant time to speak on the passing of a no-bullshit icon. I mean, this is Robin Williams. The man is a genius of comedy and acting, and he has been for decades. The people we bow to in entertainment kiss this man’s feet. So yeah, that’s going to need some press time.
And that pissed off a lot of people who felt that one story outweighed the other, that one man’s problems and resultant death shouldn’t outweigh the slaughter of innocent people in the streets by cops who seem suddenly infected with trigger finger disorders. Some people are saying one story is a tragedy and the other is not. Some people are saying murder trumps suicide.
Some people need to hit the reset button on their fucking humanity.
Both stories are tragic. For the people who are attempting to parse out that the murder of black men by police is a tragedy and the suicide of Robin Williams is not, I hope your families are buying you dictionaries for Christmas this year. One doesn’t become non-tragic just because you have a larger tragedy in your news feed today. The world is a big place: tragedies are happening all of the time. Hell, half of the people fighting to get the Garner and Brown cases attention completely whiffed on the Jeremy Lake story in Tulsa, where a cop shot and killed the black boyfriend of his daughter. Most of the platforms I’ve seen go up in the last couple of weeks didn’t even have all of the black tragedies in hand, let alone had the wherewithal – or right- to referee other people’s feelings. How about you tighten up your revolution game before you try to get a job judging in the Feels Olympics? I mean, never mind that you should have gotten enough home training to know that if you don’t have anything nice (or at least productive if it cannot be complimentary) to say on the heels of millions of people grieving someone’s death, then you should consider not saying anything at all.
Anybody who’s complaining about how much shine Williams’s suicide and the conditions around it are getting in the media are being purposefully obtuse or just don’t understand what news is. If you’re the first, nothing I say will change your perspective anyway so just click on a cat video or something. If you’re the second – and you may not know if you are, so you should keep reading – then allow me to offer a brief synopsis on what news is.
News is a television show. And like every other television show, it requires a lot of money to sustain itself. I know we think that news just needs stories to eat, but that’s not true. News can make a story out of anything. We see stories every day that have made us dumber than we were before the credits rolled. What news – and all television shows – cannot do is print money. Money for television shows comes from companies that have been convinced that shows have audiences that might be interested in what companies sell. And who is the largest portion of audience for practically every news show in the country? White people. Rich white people, poor white people, dumb white people, smart white people, white people who write poetry, white people who sit in drum circles…white people. Now, that’s not by design. That’s just math. America is 77.7% white. Any national broadcast is hitting some portion of those 243,419,206 white Americans no matter what. So it’s in ANY news show’s interest to generate, package and narrate news that engages a majority white society. I mean, audience. I mean, society. So knowing that, all the math you need to know is this:
White people’s interest (Y) x Black news (0) = 0
Anything multiplied by zero is zero. It’s the same math you learned in fifth grade. Also note that when I say “interest” here I’m not really referring to a social agenda or monetary gain. I’m talking about engagement with a story on an intellectual or personal level. Our stories aren’t compelling news for the majority of the audience they have. The media has some responsibility here, but that’s a value we constantly try to impose because we think news shows are a service. They’re not. They’re just television shows with bottom lines, just like everything else you watch.
But your network on Facebook? That’s not the media. That’s PEOPLE being PEOPLE. And if they post one minute about a murderous cop and the next about Robin Williams, or one instead of the other, that doesn’t mean they, as people don’t care about what you think they should care about. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be obtuse here. I understand the fear that the momentum of attention the shootings are receiving could be stalled by diverting that attention. But that’s a MEDIA concern. We PEOPLE on here. And people are allowed – and capable – of caring about many things at the same time. If you don’t want attention to be diverted, don’t let it be diverted. Keep up the pressure. I know I am. But if you have to make people choose to pay attention to your suffering, then they didn’t care to begin with.