Jesus Isn’t White

Before I get started, thank you all so much for reading last week’s post and providing such encouraging feedback. I feel a lot calmer and more sure of what I need to do about that relationship. However, I don’t have any updates I’m comfortable sharing right now. Thank you for clicking on this post and being willing to let me talk about something else this week.

A Facebook friend recently posed the following questions for her followers, largely White people like me, to consider: 

What kind of impact does depicting Jesus as a white man have on those who are not white? 
What harmful narrative is being upheld by depicting Jesus as white?

A lot of people who commented responded in one of two ways. First, they admitted that they think of Jesus as White, but don’t think that matters. Artists all over the world can depict Jesus as looking like them, however they look. Second, people said they always assumed that Jesus should be depicted as White because the Jewish people they know look White to them. I want to respond to both of these ideas, but first, I want to break down how Whiteness is perceived and used in the US.

First, let’s acknowledge that race is a social construct. It is a made-up label. It has no biological basis. White and Black are words people use to describe others and themselves, but they are made up. They have been assigned significant and complex meaning, but they are not real in the sense that they are not objective. Race isn’t biology. So it’s perfectly understandable if a person chooses to not use any of these made-up race labels, and thus to avoid those assigned meanings. But that’s a different blog post.

I recently read an explanation of Whiteness in the US that goes like this (paraphrased from Robert Nash’s book Moving the Equator: The Families of the Earth and the Mission of the Church). When Europeans first began coming to what would become the US, they categorized people in two ways: White and Indigenous. White meant free. Indigenous meant eradicate. This wasn’t universally true in every instance, but it was the shorthand White people developed and governed themselves on the assumption of. After 1619, there was a third category: Black, meaning enslaved. In time, White people had eradicated Indigenous people so thoroughly that they dropped off as a category (though they of course still exist) and there were only two categories: White meaning free and Black meaning enslaved. The assumption was enslavement even in the north, and White people terrorized Black communities for decades as a result (Indigo by Beverly Jenkins depicts this period well). 

Though enslavement is not technically true for Black people in this country anymore, we White people have kept to this shorthand. It was apparent in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, for example. We know he was innocent of any crimes, certainly any that would have warranted him being shot in the back by two random men. Those two White men were acting as though they had total authority over him, authority to question his behavior, to judge it unsuitable, to follow him, and then to murder him. I heard Rev. Starlette Thomas describe it on a podcast as those two White men were acting like they were “still on the plantation.” They were acting off of this old binary idea that Ahmaud is Black, therefore he isn’t free. They were acting like Black = enslaved. They were acting like plantation overseers and slave catchers.

Perhaps most insidiously, we White people have forced other races who have come here (or have been brought here in the case of Chinese railroad workers, for example) to prove themselves “not Black” in order to be considered free, contributing to anti-Blackness around the world. The existence of this binary is why Columbus has such a large role in our culture’s mythos and a holiday dedicated to him. Italian immigrants in the early 1900s were facing horrible discrimination and were trying to prove they belonged here, so they popularized this story about the Italian founder of the continent. This effort to prove Whiteness was apparent recently when Asian Americans were facing racism as the coronavirus began spreading in the US. Articles encouraged Asian Americans to present themselves as professionals, always prepared and dressed nicely, to try to combat this racism. This amounted to a demand that Asian and Asian Americans prove their Whiteness in order to not face racism, to be treated as free. It wasn’t considered enough for them to just exist, and it wasn’t enough to expect White people not to discriminate against them.

Jesus was Jewish. But we shouldn’t base our assumptions of Jesus’ physical appearance on what many Jewish people in the US look like today. It’s an understandable tendency but it ignores about 2000 years of Jewish history as well as our tendency to see people in a binary of White and Black (or White and not-White). Most Jewish people we encounter daily, who are our neighbors and coworkers and classmates, are descended from people who lived for centuries in Eastern Europe, Northwestern Europe, and Russia. And regardless of how White many Jewish people look to our biased eyes, that assignment of Whiteness is conditional. Jewish people face racism and xenophobia in xenophobic jokes from the president as well as internet mobs about public figures, and in such events as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacists. It’s very hard for Jewish people who don’t look White to be accepted even in Jewish circles, and all Jewish people (from what I understand) remain aware and wary of how conditional that acceptance from White Western culture is. 

Remember the St. Louis: Nearly a thousand Jewish people, including families with young children, fled from anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany aboard the ship the St. Louis. But when they arrived in New York City, they were not allowed to disembark. The US was unwilling to accept them as religious refugees, and neither was any other country. Eventually, they were forced to return to Germany and most passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. This same anti-Semitic reticence to welcome Jewish people into Western countries led to Western backing for the creation of the state of Israel. 

We can’t know for sure what a Jewish man living in Palestine actually looked like in the first century, though there are a number of brown skinned, black-haired guesses. We as White Christians cannot know how painful it must be to see so many depictions of Jesus as White, blonde haired and blue eyed. How many depictions? Is it really that ubiquitous? Well, I have two questions for you.

(1) How many of you grew up seeing the below photo of Jesus in your church, or even your home? 

There’s a great article in the Washington Post about how this painting became a 1940’s Protestant advertisement and spread the image of Jesus as White around the world.

(2) How many of you have a nativity set that doesn’t depict the Holy Family as White? 

It can’t be many of you because I had the darnedest time finding one for Tyler’s and my first Christmas together. And what I often did find was a base with anglican features and bone structure and hair texture, painted over in blacks and browns.

A peach-colored crayon is not the only definition of “flesh.” And it is despicable that for 100 years, the only products Band-Aid made were shaded for White skin. That ended this month.

You may feel that what Jesus looked like while on earth has no effect on your belief and trust in him. Let’s assume you’re totally right. But how we as people portray him definitely does matter. It matters because our White Western culture is dominant and held up as the ideal (or at least influencing others’ ideals) all over the world. In Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, he says his grandmother always wanted him to pray aloud because he could do so in English. To her, it was perfectly obvious that Jesus was White and spoke English, so a prayer in English must be more powerful. Read Noah’s full explanation below. 

If every culture simply represents Jesus as looking like them, as I’ve heard argued, we wouldn’t have beautiful black grandmothers in South Africa believing both that Jesus answers White people’s prayers in English first.

How we portray Jesus also matters because to depict Jesus as White is to depict a man born of an oppressed people as looking the way his people’s oppressors look. (The White women screaming in stores for being asked to wear a mask may think they’re being oppressed, but they aren’t. Inconvenience is not oppression.) For much of the world, White Western people have been the oppressors, the colonizers and invaders and economic overlords. So regardless of what Jesus may have looked like, we shouldn’t portray him the way we portray oppressive individuals or oppressive groups. That doesn’t represent Jesus’s humanity, family, mission, or values. In fact, that contradicts Jesus’ message of radical love and sacrifice for God and others.

An Unsafe Place

I resisted joining Instagram for a long time. I was firmly entrenched on Twitter, barely active on Facebook (you may have noticed), and eventually I found myself wanting an escape, somewhere I go to scroll and take in beauty and cute photos, things that inspire me. It’s a luxury and a privilege to expect such a place, and I haven’t been able to maintain it in the way I’d hoped.

My first posts were what I considered to be artistic: a section of my favorite dress, a plate on display in the house where I was babysitting, the light falling across the floor. In time I shared pictures of my roommate’s dog. Eventually I seemed to only be sharing photos and short videos of my cat. And they made me happy. Twitter felt chaotic and every time I logged on I was confronted with important but deeply painful videos and news. So I spent my “wind down” time on IG. I followed artists and crocheters and bakeries. I shared others’ art occasionally. I started having more conversations with people in their DM’s about what they’d posted. Again, the subjects were usually cat photos, and this place remained safe and uncomplicated for me. 

Someone followed me on IG who I had had a conflict with. His wife and I worked it out by phone, but she’d let slip that at some point her husband had felt some kind of attraction toward me, which is why he’d reacted the way he had, and why these new rules for communication they were implementing only applied to me. Despite several attempts, I was never comfortable around him again, and my husband and I decided to withdraw from him, and necessarily from his wife too. I didn’t respond when he would message me on Facebook or comment on my Instagram posts, which for a while was weekly. One day, he commented on a picture of my cat on Instagram, asking whose side of the bed the cat was laying on. From anyone else, that question would have been weird, and I probably wouldn’t have answered it, but from him it made me very uncomfortable. 

I shared a screen shot of it with Tyler, and he also found it very weird, which confirmed that I wasn’t just extra sensitive because this person was the one asking. But it was this person, and I was no longer comfortable simply ignoring him. I was no longer comfortable knowing he could see what I posted—anything that I posted. This was my platform, and I had the right to use it as I wished and to try to keep myself safe on it. So I used security features to limit what he could see of my IG posts and made him unable to contact me through that app. I set a reminder for myself, and two weeks later I unfriended him on Facebook and blocked him on Instagram altogether. I didn’t want it to look like I was responding to that comment, but I was. I didn’t want him to notice when I cut all contact with him. I dreaded getting a new message or text from him or his wife. But I didn’t. In time, I felt comfortable there again.

Eventually, I became freer about the number of cat videos, and also the depth in which I engaged on IG. There were also lots of cats to discuss. An old friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years commented on a photo of a book cover, thanking me for the recommendation. An acquaintance from years ago started liking my posts regularly and checked in with me when the pandemic reached the US. It’s one of the ways I checked in with friends, too, especially those who live alone in other cities. Recently, I started sharing social justice resources and  quotes in my stories. 

On Blackout Tuesday, a friend responded to a Black author’s post, which I’d shared on my IG stories. She wasn’t the only one who contacted me about that post, but this conversation became the only conversation. Over the course of the next several days, it grew dicey, strained, accusatory. I felt dumped upon and judged. I felt taken advantage of. I felt confused and bewildered by her accusations and insistence that she has another opinion without actually telling me what that opinion is. I listened to her share those opinions in a bewildering and draining 3-hour-long phone call. Scrolling through Instagram afterward, I was now aware that this person was watching me, watching what I posted, and my safe place no longer felt safe.

I continued to post about social justice in the way I had before, interspersed with quite a few cat pictures and videos. I was reading more than usual, news was more pervasive and insidious, so there was an uptick in the heavy content I was sharing. But before I posted anything, I analyzed why I was doing it. Was I trying to share my feelings, to put knowledge and my emotions about it out in the world, or was I hoping one person in particular would see it? I felt her presence on all my social media, since she follows me everywhere, but I told myself I was overreacting. She wasn’t paying special attention. It was silly and paranoid and maybe self-centered of me to think so. I was careful to carry on with clear motives, not to direct anything at her. I figured everything would be weird for a while, but eventually it’d relax some. And maybe once it was safe to meet up, we could have an actual conversation about this. 

Late one night, I posted photos of several pages from Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi, including two about the racist “Southern strategy” that helped elect Nixon. I highlighted sections of the page. In the same color I’d used to highlight about Nixon, I wrote “Bastards.” I questioned for a moment whether I should include the s. I didn’t want to call everyone who voted for him a bastard. The campaign had used decades of prejudice and racism to fool many voters. This strategy is employed now as well, and I know I was fooled by it while growing up and in my early twenties. Seeing it explained on that page filled me with anger and embarrassment. I’d believed an old lie, engineered to fool me, and it had worked. Lots of people were responsible for that, and for the election of Nixon and Reagan and the racist policies they enacted. The s on bastards felt appropriate. To a lesser degree, I was calling myself that too. 

The friend I’d been in conflict with commented on that post to my stories the next day, clearly angry. Essentially, she said, “Watch who you’re calling a bastard. Racists are bastards and that’s not me.” 

I wasn’t speaking to her in that post. She wasn’t alive to have been in the group specifically mentioned, even if she did identify herself in a way that connected with those groups. 

The last I had spoken to her, I had accused her of lying to me for two years about why one of her friendships had ended. I felt sure that these beliefs of hers were the reason, not the theological point she’d claimed. And though it still makes more sense to me than what she says happened, I apologized when she denied it. She pushed, laid on the guilt. I apologized again. She wanted to know why I was reacting this way, poured on the loving phrases, and invited me to open up to her about my vulnerabilities. I accused her emotionally manipulating me. She refused to acknowledge my accusation. I told her I wouldn’t be sharing my feelings with her because it did not feel safe to do so. And here she was in my Instagram DM’s two days later, furious at how I was sharing my feelings on my own platform.

I didn’t intend to hurt her, and so many Black people were hurt by Nixon’s policies that I didn’t think her anger at me was justified. After all, I had not directed this at her. She was making connections I didn’t intend and trying to brow beat me about it. 

I was ticked. I wanted to shout in all caps at her. I wanted to call her and curse her out on voicemail. But I needed to slow down, to not simply react. Social justice, which she doesn’t believe in, is a long fight. I didn’t want to react out of my first emotions. I didn’t want to cut myself off from her because we had been good friends for many years. I’m white and talking to a white friend who initiated a conversation with me about racism. I felt it was my responsibility to continue, or at least not to cut myself off. I didn’t want to say something harsh and sever all ties. If I needed to take that step, it should be a sober-minded one.

When she read my angry posts before, she knew they couldn’t be directed at her because she’d hidden her true beliefs from me. She wondered aloud during our phone call if my anger shared on social media would have been tempered had I known about her beliefs. Now she knew the answer to her question was, “No,” and it was difficult for her. She took my posts personally, and she lashed out at me.

After some counsel from my best friend, who knew about the situation, I responded, clarifying who I was calling a bastard, but not apologizing. I assured her that none of my posts are directed at her, but I wouldn’t restrict myself for her comfort either. She demanded to know if I thought she’d been duped by this racist policy if she had ever voted for a Republican. I considered myself a Republican until 2015 or so. I’m slow to change my label; My growth to the person I am now was slow, and the result of many years of listening and learning and questioning myself. So I pointed out that I have voted Republican in the past, and I told her that we should all ask ourselves if we’ve been duped by such a policy. Then I flipped my phone over and didn’t touch it again for an hour. 

When I did, I looked only at my text messages. Nothing from my husband, one thing from a friend, but it didn’t require a reply. I flipped my phone back over and when back to work. And when I wanted a break, to mindless scroll for a few minutes, I clicked on the IG app without thinking, saw the DM notification, and exited the app again. I flipped my phone back over on my desk. After another hour, I finally let myself read her response.

She implied my using of “bastards” was un-Christlike, and maybe it is. Would she have objected if I’d said “brood of vipers” instead of a more modern word with the same understanding? She seemed to feel morally superior for not ever calling anyone else names on social media, and she reprimanded me for doing so. I told her I’d consider her words, but that she had no right to chide me, considering no one on her social media actually knows what she thinks. I have been open and honest about my beliefs on my platform. And anyone can mute or unfollow me at any time.

I asked for an apology. She refused to acknowledge my request.

In the weeks of this conflict, I’d gotten into a dark place, obsessing over our discussions, her haphazardly applied logic, her application of extremes only to views she opposed, her terror of words like “Marxism” and distain for words like “intersectionality” without a nuanced understanding of them. And I obsessed over her dishonesty, her deliberately keeping this from me and from everyone for at least 4 years (by her admission).

I recalled times in our friendship, and in that past week, when I’d said “I feel this way because of what you said,” then had her say “If I made you feel that way I’m sorry.” The “if” felt insidious. I questioned her motivations over those years. I questioned why she had told me, again and again, of the ways she’d “wept” and “cried and cried and cried” related to one of our discussions. I questioned if my feelings were valid and reasonable. I questioned what I had let happen to my time and my brain. I questioned her motivations and the truthfulness of every story she’d ever told me and every time she effused honeyed sentiments about how much she loves and cares for me as her friend.

Hear again: I wondered if I was being reasonable. I wondered if my feelings were valid.

These are symptoms of gaslighting.

I reached out to a close friend, who was alarmed by my questioning of reality. Another assured me that no conversations I had with this friend would change her mind (especially since she’d been reading my social media posts for years), and it was okay to draw new boundaries on our relationship or to reinstate old ones. A third friend read my screenshots of the conversation and called her abusive, then encouraged me to cut all ties. My husband encouraged me not to dismiss my feelings, those of unease as well as those of friendship.

Slowly, I considered how many times in the 8 years of our friendships that this person had emotionally manipulated me, then denied it. How she’d clung to me for support, and how I’d instinctively shied away from sharing my vulnerabilities with her. How the amount of attention or sympathy I gave her was so often not enough to satisfy her. I recalled her dramatic appeals to our friendship and her monologues of love for me, and how they’d all obviously been shared to ensure my compliance. I recounted all the times I ended up apologizing for something she had initiated, and how graciously she accepted those apologies and power from me. I googled “emotional manipulation” and counted the number of signs she had displayed in the last two weeks, and how many more had been true over the course of our friendship.

In bed that night, not sleeping, I considered all the time I’d spent on this topic I don’t believe in. How long I’d spent reading her messages, researching and forming arguments, talking things over with Tyler, and crafting replies. Whatever else was happening with her, I didn’t want to devote that much time to it anymore. I hadn’t wanted to devote that much time to it to start with. I hadn’t felt I had a choice. Not if we were friends. Not when she was putting direct questions to me. Not when she was declaring this a necessary function of our friendship. Not when she was obviously intent on changing my mind despite her insistence that she only wants me to understand her position.

I didn’t feel I had a choice. But I know I do.

I wanted my brain back. I wanted me attention span back. I wanted to get back to writing elected officials and learning about racism and donating to charities. I wanted free time again. I wanted to be able to talk about anything else with my husband. I wanted the constant buzzing in my head to subside and the numbness in my chest and sleeplessness to go away. These are symptoms of depression, and I’ve experienced them before.

For my mental health, I knew I needed to stop obsessing. Which meant I needed distance. So I told her I needed to stop engaging with her about this. I admitted I had been in a dark place and this was best for me. She sent one more message, full of distain. Maybe she read mine that way. But I found it strange that she had no friendly concerns for my mental health now, no effusions of care and love.

I didn’t trust my interpretations, so a few paragraphs in, I handed the phone to Tyler. He read the whole email, and encouraged me to respond in as few words as possible. Once I’d also read the whole email, we talked about the lack of nuanced discussion, her frustrated tone, her lack of expressed concern for my well-being, and her attempt to prove she wasn’t racist because of the actions of her grandfather. I know she’d never say that his salvation could save her by familial association, and I wondered why she didn’t apply that to racism either. I particularly noted her use of the word “loving” to describe her grandfather’s snarky reaction to a racist person. Tyler and I decided on the two most personal and egregious claims, and I responded to those two in the lightest tone I could manage and the fewest words. Then I lay my phone, screen down, on the table. And I didn’t pick it up until morning.

The next few days, I remained jumpy and uncomfortable. I dreaded DM notifications on all my social media. My heart started racing at texts. And none came from her. I questioned again if I was being reasonable.

A few days later, I texted her a photo of my new kitten, trying to indicate that I wasn’t giving up on our friendship for good. I was also testing if she’d respect the boundary I’d put in place. She responded as she might have two months ago, talking about how cute the kitten is. Then I learned she was at a party. During a pandemic.

I didn’t ask any questions about masks or social distancing. It didn’t feel worth it. She’s a libertarian, prides herself on being “counter-cultural,” and bucks at what she thinks is people or the state trying to control people. I only learned about these beliefs few months ago, when Georgia began to reopen. She had insisted to me at that time that people would make good choices for public health once they weren’t being controlled by the government. And she was at a party.

I wondered again if I wanted to stay friends with her. 

I ordered the book Emotional Blackmail. 

I celebrated Juneteeth with donations and books by Black authors.

I sent another mask to my grandmother.

Now I’m the one hiding things from her. Like this post. And the depth of my distrust.

We are barely speaking, and all my social media feels unsafe to share my honest thoughts. I’m fighting to keep behaving as I want to on my platforms.

I’m fighting to keep this blog safe and mine.

I’m trying to do right by her, and feeling confused as to what that means.

I’m wondering if the only way I won’t feel her shadow is to block her everywhere.

I’m wondering if I’m being reasonable.

I’m still deciding.

I’m still deciding.

Thinking Adoringly

While listening to the radio on my drive to work one morning, the morning show hosts shared advice from psychologists about ways to take better care of yourself during this prolonged time of isolation and increased worry and anxiety. And as people who have been pushing for social justice (especially we white people who aren’t used to the prolonged and sustained fight) begin to slow down, to need a rest, I remembered these few minutes listening to the radio.

Their advice included getting outside for prolonged periods (at least 30 minutes) every day, and spending extra time on whatever self-care you engage in to help yourself feel nurtured. Then they shared a piece of advice and basically called it ridiculous. The advice was to spend time after your shower rubbing lotion into your skin and thinking adoringly about your body. 

They mocked the advice, pantomiming “oh I adore you, body” and laughing. They never pulled it back together to consider what this advice could be getting at that they were missing. And that’s been bothering me, because touch starvation is a very real mental health concern. The disabled communities have talked about touch starvation, meaning a lack of meaningful touch in their lives, for years. When the only touch you experience is utilitarian, or when you are not touched by another human at all, you may feel depressed, anxious, stressed, and have difficulty sleeping.

It’s so strange to me that until last Thursday, I hadn’t touched anyone other than my husband since the first weekend of March. But I have touched another person meaningfully and often enough to stimulate the parts of my brain that need meaningful touch. My husband is touch-oriented in how he shows love, just as I am.

Before we got married, I lived with a roommate, but we rarely touched. Many of my single friends live alone, and they have expressed symptoms of touch starvation in the past few weeks. Most have pets, which help, but isn’t the same as a human touch. Weighted blankets also simulate touch in the way your brain needs, and I’ve followed the advise of several disabled advocates by recommending them. 

The advice I heard on the radio may have angles I’m not familiar with, but it’s obvious to me that it can help combat touch starvation. By touching your skin and thinking positively about your body, you’re helping to stimulate those parts of the brain which needs meaningful touch. Thinking positively may not sound adoring, but as our dietary habits break and reform almost weekly, certain medications become rare, and we are often alone and wearing sweatpants, and as COVID numbers continue to climb but our community is reopening, it won’t hurt to add a little extra oomph to those positive thoughts about our bodies. 

Aren’t you so grateful for your heart, which works so hard constantly to keep you going? I mean, constantly. Just like your lungs, but don’t think about those too hard or you’ll only be able to think about your breathing, and I want you to think now about your hand. Isn’t your hand amazing? Look at it! Really, look at it. You can do incredible, intricate things with your hands. Catch a salt shaker before it falls off the counter. Knead dough. Perform surgery. Wave goodbye. Throw a kiss. Hold a fist. Isn’t that wonderful?

You have a foot. And an arch made of strong bones. Think about how graceful that arch looks.  And your skin! Keeping you all together, complaining a little when too hot or too cold, though it does its best to handle things on its own. Look at all those tiny, fascinating hairs. They lay down in patterns. Have you noticed? My brother has three crop circles of fine hair on his arms. And your skin is made up of the most gorgeous, intricate hues. 

You are extraordinary. You are made in the image of God, and no one is more or less alike to God’s image than you. A little adoration wouldn’t be amiss.

Do your best to take good care of yourself. 

Why I Quit Watching Police Procedurals

It’s propaganda.

Wait, let me back up. 

So, think of your favorite police shows. “CSI.” “Law & Order.” “Chicago PD.” “Castle.” “Rizzoli & Isles.” “Blue Bloods.” “Rookie Blue.” “SWAT.” “The Wire.” Maybe you love some “Dragnet” and “Hawaii 90210” and “Brooklyn-99.” Consider the crime genre more broadly and you’ve got “Bones,” “NCIS” (all 3 of them), “White Collar,” “Blacklist,” and many more.

In the crime genre, you as the audience follow officers and detectives and FBI agents and their favorite zany scientist and researcher side kicks to solve crimes and see dangerous criminals put in jail. The characters are full of nuance. They’re generous, well-explored, and interesting. You watch them fall in love and deal with normal adult problems and concerns. You applaud when they use offbeat tactics to get the job done, protect others, fight to make their hometowns and cities safer. 

But what are we really seeing?

We’re seeing a lot of white people. We’re seeing stereotypes about crimes, criminals, and people of color. We’re seeing a lot of guns, a lot of violence. We’re seeing high-speed chases. We’re shown fully realized, predominantly white characters as the heroes, the good ones. Even when they make mistakes or get into trouble, we see them as whole people and so are sympathetic, and so easy to excuse. If an officer steps out of line, a peer always pulls them back in. All the criminals are bad or condescendingly misguided. Basically everyone arrested in convicted, and those who are arrested for crimes they didn’t commit might be upset, but they don’t suffer anything. And the hero detectives always keep digging to get them exonerated and for the real criminals to be found. The community is also safer after every episode. Cops are depicted as a stabilizing influence. And then you have the tough ex-cop, the lone wolf sheriff, the marshal with true grit who ignores the conventions and rules. For these well-loved characters, violence is forgiven because of the justice in their hearts.

So what aren’t we seeing?

We aren’t seeing nuanced representations of people who commit crimes. We aren’t seeing the history of economic depression, forced poverty, and racist institutions that are informing these neighborhoods or the lives of the people in them. We aren’t seeing police officers held accountable by one another. We aren’t seeing what happens to the families of the person arrested. We aren’t seeing their legal fees, their job loss, the hole in their community even if the person arrested is later revealed to be innocent. We aren’t seeing that police are trained to build a case, not to discover the truth. We aren’t seeing innocent bystanders who try to share information but are accused instead.

We aren’t seeing the predatory and entirely subjective bail bond system, which disproportionately affects communities of color. We aren’t seeing the number of innocent people who plead guilty, just to get out of prison and back to their families or jobs. We aren’t seeing their children taken into state care because their parents were arrested. We don’t see racist profiling. We don’t see harassment. We don’t see roads to rehabilitation. We don’t see false reports by vindictive, racist white people. We don’t see abuses of power. How many women and children are abused by their police officer relatives? We don’t see that the rogue cop’s violence bred this violence that’s befallen the town. We don’t see innocent EMTs gunned down in their own homes. We don’t see men pinned to the ground and murdered over $20. 

We don’t see George Floyds. Or Breonna Taylors. The Sandra Blands. The Philando Castiles. We don’t see the Amy Coopers either.

We do see a lot of Chauvins. And their ubiquity makes is easy to ignore or wave away the threat and shock of actual police violence, even when real violence and harassment are caught on camera. 

And what does this do to us? 

It teaches us to be sympathetic and trusting of police. It teaches us to criminalize the presence of people of color, especially black people, in spaces we white people consider white. It desensitizes us to violence committed by white people in uniform.

It lets the same people say “You can’t make me wear a mask to protect other people” and a week later say “If they didn’t want to be arrested they should have been home before curfew.” I’ve yet to see a single NRA member go to protest military presence deployed against civilians, which I thought was why they needed those AR-15s. And the one white person in a flack vest (wrongly sized) who did show up with an assault rifle, and was caught on camera, was politely guided away by police.

The scripted crime genre tells overly simplistic stories that lie about our world and our neighbors, who has power and why. It tells us that certain crimes are always wrong, that there’s always another, legal option that the criminals didn’t take. It teaches us that law and order is preferable to justice and fairness. It teaches us that property and conveniences are more important than human lives. It teaches us the lie of bootstrap moralism and ignores the history of violent protest in this country. It teaches us that bad things only ever happen to other people, weak people, people over there who look like them.

The rise of cop shows and movies coincided with an increase in petty crimes in the ’70s through ’90s. And, like the rest of TV, the stories were sensationalized over time. TV isn’t a representation of reality, but those stories still effect how we see the world and the people in it. 

We are not wiser for having watched the crime drama for 50 years. We are not better prepared to protect ourselves against violent crimes. We are not wiser about the types of situations which require police mediation. We haven’t been prepared for the many more situations which can be resolved in ways that neither bother the police nor endanger the lives of our neighbors. 

They do not teach us to be better neighbors or people. They do not teach us to question the almost unilateral authority of the person with the badge and the gun. They do not teach us to speak up when we see a coworker mistreating evidence, harassing a witness, or kneeling on an unresisting man’s neck. They do not teach us to hold those with this tremendous power over life and death to a higher standard or behavior than ordinary people. They do not teach us the empathize with a dying, begging man. They do not consider if rubber bullets and tear gas are overly aggressive responses to people throwing water bottles and rocks.

The ends do not justify the means. 

The only answer to a dirty cop, or a bad cop, is not another cop. Neither is the answer a zany squad of funny detectives. 

Yes, police officers, FBI agents, sheriff’s deputies are all humans. We know that. The TV shows and movies and books make that very clear. But the people they target are also human, and that’s what cop-positive media neglects, if not actively works against. And you only have to look at how armed white people who showed up at the Minnesota state house two weeks ago to protest closed barbershops were met by law enforcement, versus how unarmed and peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors were met by law enforcement to see that the policing system is unfair.

When I say the crime drama is propaganda, I mean it meets that definition. According to Merriam-Webster, propaganda is “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause of to damage an opposing cause.” 

Here’s an article about how “Dragnet” was propaganda for the LAPD, inventing the idea that police are a stabilizing force in communities, despite evidence to the contrary.

This article documents the shift in public opinion about police departments from “Dragnet” on. 

Here’s an immense article about the normalization of injustice because of “television’s scripted crime genre.” 

This article in the Washington Post details how police censorship shaped Hollywood, with anecdotes from “The Wire.”

Here’s an article analyzing how police are always the sympathetic main characters.

If police are helpers and protectors, who are they helping? Who are they protecting? With the videos I’ve been seeing lately, it’s pretty obvious to me that white people are the only ones consistently being helped and protected. Not that police officers haven’t also been filmed in these past few days macing white children and firing at white people watching the police pass by from their porch. On the LAPD police scanner yesterday, an officer encouraged a colleague to “shoot the motherf*ckers,” referring to protestors, and was immediately admonished, not for encouraging fellow police to shoot at protestors but for saying it on the scanner.

The white driver of the semi that deliberately drove into crowds of peaceful protestors sitting on a bridge was let go without charges because he had gotten “frustrated.” Police officers are on camera shoving women, including white women, with unconscionable vehemence. We also see white people using their bodies as shields, because they are so much less likely to be treated violently than black people are.

Law enforcement has been filmed deliberately firing bullets coated in rubber, pepper bullets, tear gas, and pellets at people’s heads, which has caused an outcry in other countries. This morning, South Africa urged American law enforcement to practice restraint, reminding them of what we hope they already know: rubber bullets and pepper bullets can still be lethal. Last night, my husband and I stayed up later than we intended watching the remnants of a protest in Washington DC. While we watched, a black officer hiding behind a line of fellow officers with riot shields, intentionally maced the cameraman.

What have the police departments, by and large, done when faced with people, largely black people, protesting police brutality? They have behaved brutally. 

Many of the departments photographed “taking a knee” with protestors maced the crowd 45 minutes later. They wanted a photo op to make themselves look good. Which is why I don’t trust these “good cop sightings” either.

Excessive force killed George Floyd and prompted these protests, this rebellion against authorized violence against black people, and it has largely been met with scenes of excessive force. Again and again, police escalate into violence, police meet peaceful crowds with tear gas and mace. And again and again we see that the people setting fires and destroying windows are white people, even known white supremacists trying to undermine the movement’s efforts.

I’m no longer putting those stories and stereotypes about the police into my head. They are lies. They are propaganda. They hurt people. And they hurt us all.

Justice.

Black Lives Matter.