Fear and Denial

About a week ago I woke up with a sore throat. Nothing outrageous – what felt like a little back drip, maybe from allergies, but I felt slightly achey, too. I’d been through periods of feeling somewhat unwell already over the course of the past four months, so I didn’t wonder too much about it, although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind: what if it was COVID-19?

I’m not usually given to paranoia, which can at times be a strength, but the opposite can lead to denial, which is just as dangerous. For a week now, I’ve been living in denial about the possibility of having contracted COVID-19, going about my day, stuck at home, working and sleeping and all of that good stuff. But the feelings of slight unwellness didn’t go away, and this morning after my shower I thought I might be feeling slightly feverish, too.

So I made an appointment for tomorrow at a local urgent care, and … well, we’ll soon find out. But the thought processes in my head over the past week have, I think, taught me something about fear and denial.

I wouldn’t say that there’s much in this world that truly frightens me. I’m not scared to walk through a parking lot at night; I’m not scared of dying in a car crash; I don’t feel afraid of potentially threatening people most of the time. At most, I feel uneasy, perhaps afraid to act at times, but I don’t live in fear, for the most part, most of the time.

But I have to ask, of course, why I don’t live in fear. I mean, there are a lot of scary things out there in the world, and logically it makes sense – even from just a self-preservation perspective – to be afraid of them. Be afraid of alligators, be afraid of men with guns, be afraid of drunk drivers. These are real things, and they can really cause you harm. And I think the answer is that I largely deny these things entrance to my thoughts – I just don’t think about them, or consider the full extent of consequences of coming across them.

To an extent, I think this form of denial can be healthy; after all, if all of us worried all the time about all the things that can hurt us, we’d all be completely paranoid, and society would crumble. But taken to an extreme, and it can be almost as dangerous as thinking too much about things. On a personal level, my denial of the possibility of having COVID-19 could lead to a delay in treatment, which could lead to much worse complications. On a social level, it could be argued as outright irresponsible to my family and those I forcibly interact with (say, at the supermarket) to not have been tested sooner, as I walk through the world infecting all those around me (maybe).

And sometimes, we need to confront our denial the greater good of humanity. Denial is a strong coping mechanism to trauma, but it has its limitations. For example, there is a great deal of fear in the world right now around racism. Black communities fear, as they always have, that the protests and voices being raised now in the wake of George Floyd’s death will eventually be silenced, and they will continue to exist in a place where they fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

But there are white people who are afraid, too. Afraid of the consequences. And I don’t mean in the sense that there are white people who are afraid black people will take their jobs, or steal their wives; I mean, there might be some, but no – the worse consequence of facing the racism in this country is that it is forcing people who would have otherwise lived in denial to see reality for what it is. White people who are afraid that, if they are forced to confront racism on their front lawn, it might reveal them to be racist themselves.

Think about it – the easiest way to deal with racism is to ignore it. Deny its existence; spout ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric and claim to be ‘colorblind’. Pretty much everyone, I think, is in agreement that racism is bad; but very few people are willing to admit that they might be bad themselves. Very few people have the courage to face their own racism, and to acknowledge that they are a part of the problem. But we have to – we have to, or we can’t be part of the solution.

So listen; if I can overcome my own denial about COVID-19 and accept that I need to get tested, then surely as a community, as a country, we can overcome our own denial of prejudice and racism and accept that we aren’t just part of the problem – we are the problem. And it’s a fixable one, too. It won’t be easy or quick, and will take check-ins every day to see how we’re doing in being allies to oppressed minorities. Some days we’ll do better than others. But if we can at the very least recognize our part – each one of us – in the systemic oppression of black and minority communities across the country, then perhaps things can slowly change for the better.

It’s okay to be afraid that you might have racist thoughts; it’s okay to be afraid of conflict, especially internal conflict. But the worse option is to continue living in denial.

Don’t live in fear; but don’t live in denial. There’s a happy medium.

Black Art and Film

I want to preface this by saying this is a topic I know very little about. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about it. I can’t strictly call myself a film buff; I enjoy movies, and have a reasonable collection of digital films in my library, but I didn’t study film history in school, I don’t go out to the movies every Friday (or didn’t, prior to COVID-19), and honestly, as I age, find myself less and less inclined to watch something I haven’t seen before.

That being said, I enjoy the art of cinema, and enjoy the emotions, thrills, scares and joys that come with it. But with current events, it didn’t feel right to go on about another favorite film of mine tonight, not because film is any less important, but because cinema, Hollywood and society’s perception of film is possibly one of the largest bastions of industry-wide white privilege I can think of.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t black cinema, or that it isn’t good; nor does it mean that there aren’t famous black actors and actresses – of course there are. But in a space where tokenism remains dominant and white film is the norm, there is, I believe a lot of room for improvement. And it starts with me, and you, and all of us.

Take the following numbers as an example. I currently own 267 movies digitally, and I’m not going to start on the movies I’ve owned previously on DVD and VHS. Of those 267 films, the following contain black primary protagonists:

  • Black Panther
  • Blade 1-3
  • Independence Day (co-protagonist)
  • Lethal Weapon 1-4 (co-protagonist)
  • Men In Black 1-3
  • Rush Hour
  • The Shawshank Redemption (narrator, but not necessarily primary protagonist)
  • Suicide Squad (sorry)
  • 48 Hours

That’s 16 out of 267, or roughly 6%. Ninety-four percent of my movies are either entirely white, or the black characters feature as a minor, secondary, or token role. And arguably, the movies above are a) exceptions to the Hollywood rule, b) written, directed and produced by white people, and c) major blockbusters that everyone went to see anyway.

I can do better. There’s no reason I can’t expose myself to black cinema more, immerse myself in a world of stories that are every bit as engaging, fantastical, and human-centric. There are incredible movies out there written by black people, directed by black people, starring black people, that I can and should seek out.

Except … actually, there is a reason why I can’t expose myself to this realm of art more: it’s harder to find. As someone who primarily watches Hollywood films over independent cinema because it’s easier to access, I end up limited in my choices because those kinds of films don’t usually include an awful lot of diversity. Let’s look at the top ten films from a domestic box office revenue perspective in 2019:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. The Lion King
  3. Toy Story 4
  4. Frozen II
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  7. Spider-Man: Far from Home
  8. Aladdin
  9. Joker
  10. It Chapter Two

Of these films, five have black actors within the first four credited actors (two are the same actor, however), but only two have a first-billed black actor – The Lion King and Aladdin (in neither of which do we actually see the actors themselves). Of these same 10 films, none were directed by black directors, and none were written by black writers.

Oscars are great, and critical reception is wonderful, but if people don’t pay to see a more diverse ensemble of cinematic talent, those films will never achieve the recognition they might otherwise deserve. And it’s a difficult thing to tackle; Hollywood loves old stories that it can repurpose again and again, and the old stories aren’t black stories. The adaptations, the rewrites and the re-imaginings of everything from Jane Austen to Philip K Dick, those enduring stories of humanity were, nonetheless, written by white people.

It’s difficult to ask Hollywood to take a risk on a new story, naturally; a lot of money goes into these films, and no one wants to risk millions of dollars on something no one might want to see. And the only old stories that feature black people are, naturally, ones about slavery – and no white person wants to be reminded of that, even though they should.

I think, perhaps, this is what it means to support black artists. Their stories should be told, and they should be heard. But they won’t be, and can’t be, unless everyone chooses to hear them. They might be uncomfortable; they might be hard to see. But change can’t come through comfort. And if the only language Hollywood understands is that of money, then we need to put our money where our mouths are.

And this, perhaps, could be the most difficult thing for us to do. Because of my environment, my upbringing, my exposure to art as I grew up, I’ve only ever associated art with white artists. I love western classical music, composed by white men. I adore European heavy metal – created by white artists. I love classic stories of hope and failure, written by white authors. I love these things because I grew up with them.

By nature, it means I end up associating non-white art with difference; with ‘otherness’, with change. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, or rap; I don’t know anything about black authors. And change is scary; it closes the mind to new experiences. It makes me say, “I don’t like this”, when in reality I haven’t even given it a chance. It turns me into a kid again, refusing to eat his broccoli.

But my starting point is this: I acknowledge this failing in me, and I acknowledge that change starts from within. It starts by giving others a chance.

So if that means that I look a little deeper into myself, and ask where I can find black art, then perhaps more people the world over can, too. And of course, art is interpretive – you don’t have to like it, just because it’s black! But don’t dismiss it for the same reason.

Support black artists. They deserve to have their stories heard.

Imagine dying from traumatic asphyxiation. No, actually imagine it.

Cause of death: Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Press Release Report on the death of George Floyd

I want you to do an exercise with me. Trust me, it’ll be fun.

First, find your carotid artery. It should be easy – it’s where your gym teacher used to tell you to check your pulse after running around the track five times (you know, on the side of your neck just below your chin). Make sure you can feel your heartbeat. What you’re actually feeling is the carotid sinus, just before the artery branches to supply blood separately to the brain and the face.

Now, press gently into this nodule. You should feel your heartbeat a little stronger; you might feel a little uncomfortable. You’re starting to restrict blood flow to the brain and face now.

Try pressing a little harder; see how deep you’re willing to press into this artery before you can’t take it anymore. You might start to feel a pain in your chin as you affect nerves; you might start to feel a little light-headed, even.

Personally, I couldn’t take it for more than a few seconds.

Now imagine not a finger, but a knee, in that same spot. Imagine not a gentle pressure, but the weight of an adult male pressing into that artery. Try, if you can, imagining that this pressure is sustained for eight minutes. Imagine, if you can, the panic you might feel, the desperation, the utter despair as you realize that something is deeply, terribly wrong inside your body, as your sight narrows to a tunnel and eventually fades out, and yet you can still hear the people screaming around you to let you go.

There were two independent autopsies performed on the corpse of George Floyd; one by the county medical examiner, and one privately commissioned by his family. The above quote is the lighter of the two findings; the independent report found he “sustained pressure on the right side of Floyd’s carotid artery impeded blood flow to the brain, and weight on his back impeded his ability to breathe.” It also found he died at the scene, and not in the ER as the official report suggests.

With all that has happened since the death of George Floyd, the protests, the riots, the sustained militaristic police brutality and the despair that is sweeping the country, the one thing I haven’t to any great extent is a sense of compassion, of understanding, of the last eight minutes of George Floyd’s life.

You see, it’s easy to understand a dead person. They’re a corpse, a body, a bunch of dead flesh. They’re a thing. It’s also easy to understand a living person – we interact with them, they can speak, talk, love and laugh and cry.

But the in-between is glossed over. Nobody likes to think about the process of death, what it must feel like, what thoughts go through your head as you fade from the world. It’s a difficult thing to imagine, of course, because most people who pass through that experience don’t come back to tell us about it.

George Floyd didn’t come back. He died on the streets of Minneapolis in handcuffs with another man on his back, a knee in his neck. I wonder what he was thinking as he died. I wonder if he thought about his family, and whether he would ever see them again. I wonder if he thought to himself, I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m dying.

But there’s one thing I don’t wonder about. I don’t wonder whether he saw himself dying with his face pressed into the pavement and his chest and throat crushed. I don’t wonder if he was at peace with his death. I don’t wonder if he would rather have died as an old man, in his bed, surrounded by his family and loved ones.

Please – I know it’s difficult, but try to imagine what his death must have felt like. Not to the bystanders – not to the living left. To him. He was a person, a human, a living life that was violently and slowly extinguished, and I can’t stop thinking about what his last moments in this world must have felt like.

No one deserves to die like that. No one should be treated so cruelly by another human being. But most of all, no black person should have to fear that this could happen to them for no other reason than because they are black. No black person should have these thoughts running through their heads simply because of the color of their skin.

George Floyd’s death is tragic, yes; but it is also a cruel, horrific, unimaginably painful way to die, and the person who caused his death might have been better served putting a bullet in his head. And the people responsible are far more than Derek Chauvin who killed him. They are the people who allowed this country to get to the point where such a thing could happen at all. They the leaders, the people in power who continuously turn a blind eye and tell us that they deserved to die, that they had it coming, that they shouldn’t have resisted … you know the story.

Not only did George Floyd not deserve to die, he most certainly did not deserve to die so horrifically. Please – celebrate his life, remember his death, and do anything and everything you can to ensure no black person ever suffers so cruel a death again.