Panning Out from the White Racial Lens: The Problem with Punctuation

In my former life as a relationship researcher I spent a great deal of time listening to couples describe the root of their conflicts. When couples were probed about what typically started a fight, the wife often claimed that her husband made empty promises about things he’d do and then pretended to forget. The husband, on the other hand, blamed her incessant nagging on his lack of motivation and the ensuing fights.

This difference in perspective is referred to in the interpersonal communication literature as “punctuation,” and it helps explain why two people in the same relationship view the start of their conflicts so differently. Not unlike the chicken and the egg scenario, it’s unclear which came first: the nagging or the noncompliance. Ultimately, it depends on who is punctuating the story.

The concept of punctuation can be a useful tool for understanding any number of human disputes, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to atrocities like the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. Examining how perpetrators explained the events leading to their despicable behavior doesn’t excuse it, but it helps us grasp the powerful drive provided by the self-serving punctuation of events. In his book Mass Hate, Neil Kressel summarizes this drive explaining,

“Virtually all perpetrators of great evil in the world — including Nazis, Serb rapists, Hutu extremist murderers, and those behind the Khmer Rouge atrocities — believed that they were victims of some long standing prior outrage that justified their militancy.”

Learning more about the role of punctuation gives some insight into why white folks often struggle to see issues from a racial justice lens. White people like me frequently find ourselves listening to discussions on topics like welfare, affirmative action, quota systems, and other programs meant to address racial inequity. In these discussions it’s not uncommon to hear comments from white peers about how members of another race just can’t get it together, don’t work hard enough, abuse what’s given to them, etc.

One philosophy I often hear goes like this:

“If you don’t want to get killed by the police, then just don’t _______ .”

You can fill in the blank with a variety of behaviors, such as “commit a crime,” “run,” “hang around with bad people,” or “sell drugs.” Folks who express these beliefs seem to be of the opinion that the murder of people of color by police simply wouldn’t occur if folks would just stay out of trouble in the first place. In actuality, this perspective is just a classic case of self-serving punctuation that comes from viewing the world through a racially privileged lens.

In a recent episode of the podcast Code Switch, the hosts explore the case of Freddie Gray, who you may recall died in 2015 from injuries sustained after being arrested and recklessly driven around unsecured in the back of a police car. Freddie was raised in Baltimore, where the poverty rate is more than double the national average, and the unemployment rate is three times higher than the national average. Baltimore was identified by researchers at Harvard as the U.S. city with the lowest likelihood of its residents escaping poverty. Before being arrested and dying from injuries he sustained at the hands of police, events in Gray’s life included being exposed to lead as a child, being raised by a single mother, attending one of the worst rated high schools in the country, and several run-ins with the police for nonviolent crimes. During his last interaction with the police he decided to run. I ask you, person who continues to blame people of color for causing their own deaths by misbehaving, did Freddie really die because he illegally sold loose cigarettes and then ran from the police? Really?

I’ve learned that if I take a few steps back from the way the dominant racial group tends to punctuate and therefore justify human rights violations against people of color, it’s not very difficult to locate the real root of the problem. Spoiler alert: It is almost always systemic racism. Freddie did not die because Freddie ran. Systems of oppression that allow years and lifetimes of racial injustices trigger reasonable human responses to those systems of oppression, whether it’s running, lying, or even pulling out a weapon. The problem rests in our culture’s way of addressing these incidents and our failure to make deep and lasting systemic changes that will work toward preventing them in the first place.

You may be thinking, “That sounds like a huge and overwhelming problem! What can little me really do about it?” Here are a few ideas to get started.

Get educated about the juvenile justice system, and share what you learn. There’s an abundance of great resources out there to help us understand more about why punctuation matters in how we view equity and justice. By educating ourselves, we can fine tune our ability to pan out from individual events to get more information in the frame so we can more effectively address the real roots of social problems. My latest favorite resource is the new documentary Raised in the System. In 50 compelling minutes this documentary, produced by HBO and hosted by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams, addresses how the criminal justice system perpetuates a virtually unbreakable cycle of crime for children of color born into poverty.

Speak out against more policing, especially for youth. School Resource Officers (SROs), which is a fancy name for armed cops on school campuses, are being hired in increasing numbers by school districts to appease parents worried about school shootings. Not only are SROs ineffective in preventing school shootings (there was one on the Parkland Florida campus), but their presence has a disproportionately negative effect on students of color, increasing the likelihood that they will be arrested for petty, nonviolent crimes and end up in the juvenile justice system, a process referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. By speaking out against the hiring of SROs on your local school campuses, you are taking action to break this cycle. You can find a compilation of some of the research on SROs here, and even use it as a template to petition the schools in your district.

Show your support for AB931 and SB1421, even if you don’t live in California. The most recent shooting of an unarmed black man, Stephen Clark, prompted California lawmakers to say “enough” and put forth two bills that need your support. Assembly Bill 931 is intended to restrict police use of force that often leads to deaths like Freddie’s, Stephen’s and so many more. Senate Bill 1421 (known as the Right to Know Bill) will demand greater accountability from police by allowing public access to records related to confirmed cases of sexaul assault and other egregious misconduct by police, as well as incidents where serious use of force was used, especially police shootings. Even if you don’t live in California, educate yourself about these bills and spread the word so other progressive states follow suit. Californians can begin supporting the bills here.

How folks punctuate events says a lot about where they are in their understanding of privilege, and can serve as a roadmap for those of us trying to change hearts, minds, and policy. The next time you encounter someone who tries to simplify systemic injustice by blaming oppressed individuals or groups (and, sadly, there will be a next time), I hope the concept of punctuation serves as a useful tool for conversion, I mean, conversation. Good luck!