On black bodies and white spectatorship

by Jiangtao Harry Gu ’13
Visiting Assistant Professor of Media & Society

The video that documents George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin has clearly brought attention to police brutality and systemic racism in America. But I want students to approach the issue more critically by considering how such images can also inflict harm. For black viewers in particular, many experienced post-traumatic distress after viewing the video. As Dr. Melanie Price succinctly put in her New York Times op-ed on June 3, 2020, “Black death has long been treated as spectacle…These videos are fodder for ratings, clicks and increased trauma as much as rage.” Part of my plan is to provide students with historical precedents (such as lynching photographs and the Rodney King video), so they can become aware of how such images cater to a white spectatorship. I also hope that, by reflecting deeply on these issues, students can make better decisions about whether they should share certain media contents.

In my “Intro to Media and Society” course, one of the examples that I cite is lynching photographs throughout the Jim Crow years. These photographs, often taken by white photographers and depicting white mobs standing in front of lynching sites, were popular among white readers because of their sensational value. They were also printed as postcards, often captioned with statements of community values and civic pride by their makers. By 1909, the sales of such postcards reached more than 50 million. (Dora Apel, Black Men, White Women, and the Mob, 30.) It just shows the white public’s appetite for such imageries.

Despite their differences, one can draw several similarities between lynching photographs and the video of George Floyd. First, they both depict the dead or dying black body in an unnecessarily explicit manner, in a way that is rarely considered permissible for white bodies. Second, they both fulfill the audience’s need for visual stimuli, whether they are aware of it or not.

These videos often circulate without any kind of prior warning. One can be scrolling Twitter and involuntarily watch something that they do not intend to see. While writing this, I realize that YouTube has put a warning before one can play the clip. This is a meaningful step, albeit a late and reactionary one. I often wonder if it is necessary to show such videos at all, or whether social media sites along with traditional media such as TV and newspaper should censor such images. I don’t have an answer, but I think there are hard questions worth considering. For those who film such incidents, I think it is important for them to understand that they own the right to what they film. In that case, they should have a knowledge of how their videos will be circulated before they make it public. I don’t think it’s productive to indoctrinate students into thinking they should react in a certain way. Because whatever situation they may run into is going to be unique and nuanced. My hope is to provide them with the necessary contexts, so that they can form opinions that are just and self-reflective.