Why I need a black friend’s perspective on Charles Ramsey

If you are alive and frequent the internet, you have no doubt seen the local news interview of Charles Ramsey, a Cleveland man who helped rescue three women presumed dead after going missing a decade ago.

I remember watching the video, and simultaneously laughing out loud and being incredibly uncomfortable when Ramsey said, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!” It’s an exaggeration, of course, though true enough to it to give it that comedic bite.

And I did think it odd that of all the soundbites from the video being circulated, most didn’t include this one. It was as if the statement were just a little too biting to touch.

This morning a friend of mine, who wants to stay anonymous so we’ll call him Derek, posted “The Troubling Viral Trend of the “Hilarious” Black Neighbor” to Facebook:

Ramsey has become the latest in a fairly recent trend of “hilarious” black neighbors, unwitting Internet celebrities whose appeal seems rooted in a “colorful” style that is always immediately recognizable as poor or working-class.

The author, Aisha Harris, notes that none of the notoriable white local-news celebrities people “have been subjected to quite the same level of derisive memeification as Brown, Clark, and now, perhaps, Ramsey.”

She wonders if these memes speak to a desire to see black people “perform.” And ends thusly:

The candid statement [about a white girl running to a black man] seems to catch the reporter off guard; he ends the interview shortly afterward. And it’s notable that among the many memorable things Ramsey said on camera, this one has gotten less meme-attention than most. Those who are simply having fun with the footage of Ramsey might pause for a second to actually listen to the man. He clearly knows a thing or two about the way racism prevents us from seeing each other as people.

So I read the story and of course thought it seemed a little… sensitive. I certainly don’t immediately consciously identify with a desire to see black people perform. So I asked the friend who posted the story for his thoughts. And we had this conversation:

Derek: i found that completely saddening that it’d be a shock for a pretty white girl to run to a black man

Me: Yeah, it is really saddening.
It’s shitty

Derek: soooo shitty. my [white] girlfriend got blackout drunk one time, so I took her back to her apartment, then the cops came, and I later found out that someone had called them seeing me help her get back and thought there was a potential rape situation

Me: Oh my God Derek. That is horrendous. I’m really sorry that happened to you. That’s something I just literally cannot fully empathize with.
I really think that you and I just can’t see that video through the same lens. We can just try to get closer. So I guess articles like this help. But stories like that are an essential part of it.

Derek: yup. i saw it as more of an example of a shitty situation than something humorous.
and besides, pretty white women run to me all the time, and i’m never suspicious that something’s amiss

Me: Well, you are considerably more attractive than he…

Derek: hahahaha

What I think that this reveals is that I simply cannot watch Charles Ramsey through Aisha Harris’s or Derek’s eyes. His experience of having a neighbor assume he was a rapist and having police officers enter his girlfriend’s home because he did something that anyone should be able to do (and which was kind! God bless those who take care of drunks!) without hassle will color his perceptions in a way that is understandable and yet not really accessible to me except through his retelling.

This was kind of what I was getting at in How a Fundie Christian Became a Casual Sex Advocate.

In it, I was talked mainly about how in a post- mainstream-media world we all get our news stories tailored to our pre-existing interests and biases.

It’s an acknowledged fear, if not an established problem, that the decline of mainstream media has fragmented information flows. The internet makes it so easy to filter out most information that you don’t already care about and that might contradict your worldview.

But what I didn’t really address is that just being who we are, where we are, fragments our information flows. I am ignorant of his experience as a black man in the south. And this is through no fault of my own except that I’ve failed to seek out the information with enough vigor.

The point of the post is that people aren’t generally bad, they’re generally ignorant. So similarly, I am not a bad person for laughing at Ramsey, and he’s not a bad person for not being able to.

The best either of us can hope for is that I admit my own ignorance and seek earnestly to help narrow it by listening to him, and that he give me the benefit of the doubt that I am not a bigot, but am understandably unfamiliar with these experiences.

So where I said:

More broadly in life I would like everyone to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt. Let’s just say someone denies rape culture, or downplays the racism in the drug war or tries to shame you about what you’re wearing. Instead of assuming they are misogynists or racists or just apathetic to plight that’s not their own, consider that they are probably just understandably ignorant. No one reads all the same shit as you. There are like a million things to watch and read, meaning a person could literally go their whole lives totally missing the stories that shape your world. Instead of getting angry or writing them off, take a deep, cleansing breath, remember that they may know things you’re ignorant about, and try to hand them a little bit of information that may help make them more aware.

I would like to now say:

More broadly in life I would like everyone to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt. Let’s just say someone laughs at Charles Ramsey talking frankly about racism. Instead of assuming she is a racist or apathetic to his plight, consider that she is probably just understandably ignorant. She has never had the police called on her because of her skin color. Instead of getting angry or writing her off, take a deep, cleansing breath and try to hand them a little bit of information that may help make them more aware.

Which is exactly what Derek did. So really, he could have written the post. Guest post, Derek?

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