Three Black Teenagers
Written by Dr Joshua Shepherd
Yesterday the term ‘three black teenagers’ trended heavily on twitter. (see https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/09/three-black-teenagers-anger-as-google-image-search-shows-police-mugshots) The trend began when @iBeKabir tweeted the results of two Google searches. A search for three white teenagers turned up images of wholesome smiling white teenagers. A search for three black teenagers turned up images of mugshots. (Google images is already going meta over the story, with Google images now turning up images of three black teenagers contrasted with three white teenagers.)
There are a number of angles to this story worthy of reflection. For whatever reason, my thoughts about the story revolve around the difficulty of mustering empathy for people in different conditions than our own. The internet is full of whining and posturing about ‘identity politics.’ Often lost in the buzz surrounding such discussion are the basic facts that life in our society is much more difficult for some because of features of their identity, and that those lacking these features can find it very difficult to empathize.
Consider biking into the wind. It’s no fun. It’s hard, and the longer you go on the more effort each pedal takes. Conversely, biking with the wind is great. One interesting thing about biking with the wind is that you don’t actually feel the wind. You feel yourself as more powerful, with each pedal propelling you further than expected.
I suppose something similar is true for the privileged and the non-privileged in our society. Those who lack privilege due to features of their identity are, in certain respects, biking into the wind. Those with privilege due to features of their identity are, in certain respects, biking with the wind. Those without privilege are acutely conscious of the difficulties endemic to their position. Those with privilege can easily fail to notice the wind at all.
Often appropriate action towards and with others requires appropriate empathy. When those others are very other – very different from us in some respects – finding appropriate empathy can be difficult. Perhaps, recognizing this, we can also recognize a duty to work even harder to empathize with the very different.