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Column: Sending signals: I'm a victim, not a threat

Earlier this month, Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player who recently moved to the Charlotte, N.C., area to be with his fiancée, had a horrible car crash. The 24-year-old broke out the back window to escape and walked, injured, to knock on the nearest door for help. Now, Ferrell is dead. The neighbor he asked for aid called 911 ("He is trying to kick down my door," she cried on the phone), and one of the responding police officers shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times.

Ferrell, who was African-American, may have been too hurt, too in shock, to remember to whistle Vivaldi to signal that he was a victim, not a threat.

Social psychologist Claude Steele's book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do revolutionized our understanding of the effects of stereotypes. The title of Steele's book alludes to a story shared by his friend Brent Staples, a New York Times writer.

An African-American man, Staples recounted how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved about Chicago as a free citizen and graduate student. To counter the negative effects of white fear, he took to whistling Vivaldi. It was a signal that he was safe. Dangerous black men do not listen to classical music, or so the hope goes.

The incongruence between Staples' musical choices and the stereotype of him as a predator were meant to disrupt the implicit, unexamined racist assumptions about him. I do not know many black people who do not have some kind of similar coping mechanism.

Steele described the constant background processing that stereotyped people must perform. It's like running too many programs in the background of your computer as you try to play a YouTube video. Just as the extra processing impacts the video experience, the cognitive version compromises the functioning of our most sophisticated machines: human bodies.

Imagine the productivity of your laptop when all the background programs are closed. Now imagine your life when those background processes are rarely if ever activated, simply because of the social position your genetic characteristics afford you.

The death of Jonathan Ferrell reminds us that stereotyping in daily interactions can be aided and abetted by organizational processes (like the characterization of a police call to 911) and structural legitimacy (like the authority of the police to shoot first and ask questions later).

I read an article that quotes Ferrell's family at length. His family's attorney did not just want us to know that Ferrell was a friend and son but that:

"He's engaged to be married, he has a dog and a cat, he was driving a Toyota Camry, he survived an accident, had 3.7 GPA, a chemistry major. This is not someone who posed a threat to the officers or anyone else, this is an everyday American."

A 3.7 GPA. They want us to know that their dead friend, son, brother, and cousin had a 3.7 GPA. Even in death his family is whistling Vivaldi on Ferrell's behalf, signaling to us and our adjudication of justice that he was a student, and, by extension, a human being whose death should matter.

This piece is adapted from Tressie McMillan Cottom's blog, tressiemc. She is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. © 2013 Slate

Column: Sending signals: I'm a victim, not a threat 09/23/13 [Last modified: Monday, September 23, 2013 5:23pm]
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