Medcalf: Gawking at Black pain steals our humanity

Myron Medcalf, Star Tribune
·5 min read

When I reached Danielle Kilgo, I was sitting in my car at the Brooklyn Center strip mall across from the police precinct that has become the hub for protests after Daunte Wright was shot and killed by then-officer Kim Potter on Sunday.

Kilgo had been in the same spot the previous day. She is the John & Elizabeth Bates Cowles professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

Knowing her background and expertise, I asked her this question: What is the line for African American journalists who intend to highlight our experiences without feeding the world's fascination with our pain?

"This fiending for Black trauma is a very real thing," she said.

I asked because I am at a crossroads, unsure if this endeavor is encouraging growth or simply trying to fill the bottomless cup for the white folks who seem to need a new video every six months to be reminded of racism's presence and penalty. It is difficult to know what to say, how to say it and when to say it without traumatizing those who are already suffering. I also know the reciting of our experiences often inspires short-lived sympathy that does not guarantee systemic change.

"I think there is a delicate balance that when you're in this position, you can't do everything for everyone and you do what you can do," said Kilgo, whose dissertation at Baylor University was titled "Black, White, and Blue: Media and Audience Frames from Visual News Coverage of Police Use of Force and Unrest." "And, 'What are the limitations to that?' is something we do have to wrestle with. I don't want to talk about young Black men, women and children dying on the streets every day. I would much rather talk about these stories of resilience."

I nodded my head as she spoke.

Our pain is now the car accident on the side of a Minnesota road. People slow down for a few seconds before returning to normal speeds. The mangled sedan is another Black body, another preventable catastrophe.

The media plays a role in that reality. Journalists sometimes cover these police killings with a matter-of-fact approach that denies an exploration of systemic contributors or issues within the culture of law enforcement. Then, the next tragedy feels like a single event instead of a trend. Over time, a desensitized society has to see a bigger wreck before it can be moved to care, and change never materializes.

"How awful does it have to be before people stop and they turn their heads and they say, 'I can't do this anymore?' " Kilgo said.

At conferences around the country, Kilgo reminds her audience that Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was shot while carrying a toy gun, was just a child.

"He loved Legos," she tells people in the crowd.

It's an important point. The battle in this moment includes a declaration of our humanity.

"This is what people do consume and this is when eyes do get raised," she said. "If you look back at the civil rights movement and when people decided to look up and say, 'Oh, water hoses on human beings is a bad idea. Maybe dogs are too.' What did it take? It took lots of those pictures. It took lots of hanging bodies for that to happen. I don't want to relive that every day, but we live that every day. We live with that threat. And we live with that reality."

In 1991, I saw the video of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King only on the 6 o'clock news. On Monday, I pulled over to the side of the road and watched a video of Wright's last moments on my phone.

Through social media, we have been inundated with tragic images in recent years. At a news conference with Wright's family, George Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, said he has watched his brother die a thousand times already. I can't imagine how that affects him. Just in the past few days, I feel like I've watched Wright die a dozen times.

Toward the end of my conversation with Kilgo, I learned that we're both raising preteens and we're equally concerned about their access to this perpetual cycle of violence against Black bodies. We know their generation will feel the impact of what they're seeing around them today. Before she sent her 12-year-old daughter to bed on Sunday night, she told her, "You're going to see another video."

"The obvious psychology, discipline-based consequence of this is going to be a desensitization," she said. "They're going to become desensitized to this kind of trauma."

That's what keeps us going, I think. Beyond the pain is a desire to highlight the damage and fight for solutions and real progress that will hopefully enhance the lives of the next generation and eliminate these tragedies. But, it seems, Black people have to do it at the expense of our peace. That is the part that always feels unfair.

"I don't think that there is a space where Black people get to stop telling their stories," Kilgo said, "and the consequence of that is very real and very tragic too."

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.

myron.medcalf@startribune.com Twitter: @MedcalfByESPN