the harms of objectivity

There’s something that hasn’t been sitting right with me lately. Of course, for anyone not living under a rock, there’s probably something not sitting right with everyone right now. But more specifically, given all of the support and momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement in light of recent events, there’s something unnerving about the number of people who are quick to rationalize racial injustices, or those who would expect Black people to assume a twisted version of objectivity in matters of systemic racism. 

It didn’t take more than a day from the tragedy of George Floyd before people began posting statistics on black-on-black crime rates and black-on-white crime rates, as if to justify what happened to Floyd, or to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. But frankly, a lot of these attempts at stalling the movement are irrelevant. People are not protesting to comment on anything even remotely related to the “proportion” of crimes committed by any certain race; they are protesting to point out and fight against the fact that there are fundamental differences in the way that we as a country, as a flawed justice system, respond to police officers and/or white people committing irreparable injustices against POC.

I believe there is a certain kind of crippling desensitization to injustice that we as Americans must have in order to be able to casually retweet the video of Floyd’s death. But even more so, it’s upsetting that there are people who are able to sit through the whole video and still manage to either blame Floyd (or, more broadly, anyone who has unjustly suffered at the arms of the police) for the police’s brutality, or denigrate the people who are taking action against the very modus operandi that led to his death. For people like them, there just must have been a reason, there just had to have been some explicable, rational, objective way to whitelist the police officer who, in any circumstances, was clearly using excessive force. The rhetoric of the objective, defensible injustice is in utter disregard for the consistent severity of police brutality, especially against POC.

Moreover, there is another sense in which this idea of objectivity undermines the already watered-down American perception of racial injustice: people who themselves wish to remain objective, whatever that means for them. The difference is subtle but important—these kinds of people wish to avoid “taking a side” or choose to publicly remain “apolitical” (though the issue at hand is barely political so much as it is humanitarian), and may even encourage others to do the same. Again, I would contend that this sort of objectivity is yet another indication of privilege. For someone to be so emotionally removed from a death most people would agree was entirely avoidable to go out of their way to proclaim a lack of support…it reveals that the resolution of these issues has a negligible impact on them, while those same issues are active fears in the minds of POC. There is a clear absence of sympathy due to social and potentially economic differences that is altogether detrimental, and moving forward, it is imperative to identify these differences in ourselves and challenge ourselves to action.

It is a privilege to remain objective in instances of discrimination. It is a manifestation of privilege to ask those who are affected to do the same. 

More generally, in this modern context, we see that the intersection of deontological ethics and American politics is the unearthing of privilege, whether it’s in issues of civil rights, the upcoming presidential election, or other politically-influenced subjects. When you binarize a system to distinguish right and wrong without acknowledging the corruption and inequities inherent to said system, you are bound to overlook those who are negatively affected by its flaws. That, fundamentally, is privilege. 

Consider the person who would say something along the lines of “Just obey the law, and the police won’t harm you.” At best, maybe in an ideal world, this would be true, but this overlooks the glaring effects of racial profiling and prejudice, as well as the relatively unchallenged authority of the institution of the police in the United States. Plenty of Black people and other POC have followed the law to a T and still find themselves six feet underground at the hands of the police. It’s certainly not illegal for a twelve-year-old to hold a toy gun, for one. To go even further, there are even instances of hypocrisy in that original statement; recently, a Black birdwatcher who, upon asking a white woman to leash her dog (as per the rules of the park), recorded the encounter and exposed how the woman actively leveraged and weaponized his skin color in an unwarranted phone call to the police to diminish the fact that she was the one who was in the wrong. It doesn’t take much time to substantiate that these are not isolated events.

I will take the time, however, to digress into a tangential topic—the somewhat misleading prospect of outworking stereotypes for minority students pursuing higher education. What I didn’t mention, and what is of slight interest regarding the previous story of the birder, is that the man was a Harvard alumnus. Of course, like anyone else, he is more than just a remnant of his alma mater, but I think there are implications to this realization that sit heavily on the shoulders of minority students around the globe. 

As a Black Stanford University student soon to finish his first year, I have fallen prey to the tinged perspective around what it means to exist as a minority at an elite institution, especially one in such a progressive region of the country. People like me make it to the eight thousand, one hundred and eighty acres of campus and think ourselves removed from the hardships of the world. The Stanford “Bubble,” generally referring to the secluding effect from Stanford’s large campus being in the middle of a suburban area, has come to signify something wholly different from its original meaning to me.

For many of us, at one point or another, some part of our motivation in our education has come in the form of contradicting stereotypes. Study hard enough, and you’ll break expectations. Work hard enough, and you’ll supersede your skin color. Coming into Stanford, I felt as if I had finally overcome this hump. There was almost a blindness in the whims of collegiate life and concerns over things like internships and clubs and start-up culture that blur reality for many young minorities.

I still remember going to Stanford Faces of Community, an event during New Student Orientation that is aimed at presenting incoming students with diversity and the various hardships that come with it through other students’ personal narratives. Before even going, something about the energy surrounding the event was surreal, not to mention the bravery of the presenters who shared their stories. By far, it was one of the highlights of orientation. But even then, a reassuring voice in the back of my head whispered that something like what happened to these students couldn’t happen to me. It wouldn’t. I had made it this far to ensure that it didn’t. Yet, in 2020, I am once again bombarded with reminders that it can and probably will. That attending elite institutions has at most a marginal effect on much of the world’s perception of minorities is an important reminder to have as many of us enter higher degree programs or lucrative industries.

We want our names to be put out there—to be a cogent voice for overlooked communities when there is none—but they’re often only recognized in the form of a eulogy. But today, it is hundreds of thousands of people gathered in cities all over the country. Today, it is over twenty-six million posts on Instagram and even more on Twitter. Today, it is a myriad of people stepping out of their comfort zones to raise awareness and fight for what they believe in.

For anyone reading, I encourage you to question whether you’re implicitly contributing to a harmful narrative by being objective. I would urge you to receive, use, and spread information about places to donate, petitions to sign, emails to send, and other resources. To be clear: being an active participant and ally doesn’t mean you have to flood your social media with posts related to the movement, and just because you don’t post anything doesn’t mean you’re being harmfully objective; in the end, we need your support, not your black Instagram screens, whether that’s through donations, petitions, or the like. But to qualify that, if the thought of posting to your social media about Black Lives Matter makes you more uncomfortable than other ways of advocating, I’d implore you to ask yourself: why? Why does publicizing your support of human rights for Black people or your disdain for police brutality make you uncomfortable? I promise, posting does not make you look political or radical; it makes you look human. More times than not, if you’re hesitant to post, repost, or contribute in any fashion, you’ll find yourself grappling with the roots of your privilege, which can be hard, but absolutely necessary if we are to move forward.