What do you see?

8 Dec

Watching the video of Eric Garner’s death (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2014/dec/04/i-cant-breathe-eric-garner-chokehold-death-video), I can’t help thinking about what a colleague told me about the defense strategy during the 1991 trial of LA police officers for beating Rodney King: he explained that the defense kept replaying the video of the attack (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE0Uua7jnSA) for jurors, in an effort to desensitize them to the brutality. And while decreasing the shock factor of the police’s actions, they played up the significance of King’s, claiming that when he tries to get up, or raises his arm in the video, he is striking back at the officers.

I have to say that when I watch that video, I don’t see someone who has the ability to fight back, regardless of his intentions.

But then, I think the difference in what we may see in the videos of King’s beating or Garner’s death by chokehold begins before we see anyone in action.

Here’s a still frame from the video of Garner’s fatal run-in with police:


What’s the first thing you notice about the three people in this shot? Research on human perception indicates that if you were to say, “I see three people,” you would be omitting a lot more information that you’ve taken in and interpreted–information that you can’t help but register and process whenever you encounter another person or people.

So how would you describe the three people in this shot? If you were to say, “I see three men,” I don’t think many people would object. However, seeing a man behind Garner based on the visual evidence in this one picture requires filling in a lot of blanks, no? In fact, describing any of them as men relies on tapping stereotypes and preconceived notions of what a man looks like. And that’s what we do all the time: take limited sensory input about another person, add our frames of reference and voila! We see the person our biases incline us to see.

What we admit to seeing is another story. If you were to say, “I see two white men and a really big black man,” you might lose some support from your peers. Because while we can’t help “seeing” race and size, just like we can’t help “seeing” biological sex (the quotations indicating that what we think we see is not necessarily how someone identifies), there is a greater social tendency to be colormute (Pollock, 2004) and sizeblind, whereas we feel comfortable naming and labeling people’s biological sex (regardless of whether we and our oversimplified framework of “male or female” is right).

The fact is, it’s a common social norm not to name or talk about race or size, in the case of race, particularly among white people (Vittrup, 2007). Yet not naming or even admitting to ourselves that we see a big black man (and not just a man) when we look at Garner doesn’t free us from our biases about big black men. In fact, it just gives those biases permission to run free and unchecked. Just like our biases about physically fit white men.

What I wonder–and what worries me–is how jurors untrained in human identity development and perception, including the human condition of being biased and susceptible to social stereotypes, think they see the evidence in front of them clearly and without prejudice. The fact is that they can only see what–and who–is in front of them through biased eyes, and the only way they can discern and act in the interest of justice is to be aware of and challenge their biases. Unconscious bias training doesn’t mean we can guarantee the verdict everytime. It does mean that more of us can trust in a system that is self-aware, socially-aware and honest that justice isn’t color, size or otherwise blind.

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