As the adage goes, the good intentions of things like this are precisely what the road to hell is paved with. Negrophobia??? Really?
The author sets out to frame the recent killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown as consequences of “Negrophobia,” a literal fear of black people. Negrophobia is neither a new term nor a wholly inaccurate word in and of itself, but here, the author writes of it with an excusing tone that thoroughly betrays his good intentions. He begins with telling us how the deaths of these unarmed brothers “forced [him] to come to terms with [his] own fear: arachnophobia.” He reminds us that “phobias are extreme aversions” and tells the reader a stirring tale of a recent night when he was terrified by, but bravely triumphed over, a scary spider on the wall.
Young man, the night you killed a spider has literally nothing to do with the night Michael Brown was shot in the street and lay there dying in front of his friends and family. And if you want to flex some sort of allegorical muscle and make me believe that it does through the artful use of metaphor and simile, I will kindly ask that you get back into the linguistic gym and come back with a stronger effort, please.
In searching for the article once I saw massive grumbling over the headline, I came across a few voices on social media defending it, saying that Negrophobia is a real thing. Okay, fine. Yes. Let’s go with that for a moment. As the author goes on, he describes how people can be inordinately terrified of black people, especially the big ones! And that this is a phobia. Sure. What seems to escape him is that as a young black man, for him to write about Negrophobia with a supporting example of the potentially night-ruining Spider Incident from his own life and not make it CRYSTAL clear that this is a thing that is not okay is irresponsible. And for Time to put it on such a large platform is downright dangerous.
A phobia is an irrational fear that could potentially be a starting point for an examination of hatred and violence such as the killings this article describes, but it cannot be a stand-alone explanation. In the context of bias against our fellow humans, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, etc., when using these terms it is important to emphasize that naming the fear of another human absolves the person who is afraid of absolutely nothing.
Back to those good intentions: when I read the brief author bio at the end and saw that Brandon Hill is a Stanford University junior, I got a picture of a very young man with great intentions. He is studying political science and African-American studies at a prestigious university, and a quick search turned up this TedxSemesterAtSea Talk he gave about having been de-accepted there and how he traveled the world learning and dancing and living during the year before his re-acceptance and studies began.
In the talk, he describes having traveled to Georgia to protest the state’s execution of Troy Davis, whose murder conviction was clouded by significant doubts about his guilt. As young Mr. Hill describes that pivotal moment for him, being in a crowd of protesters fighting for a man’s life even as death prevails, he says, “I realized that we can study all we want, but what good is book knowledge if we don’t use it to make a tangible impact on the world? So right there in the heat of battle, I learned that sometimes we need to put down our books and pick up our beliefs.”
That is lovely. Watching the video of him speak, I feel like he spoke as if he was born to give Ted Talks and I see many more in his future. Would that he could have “put down his books” here and left the detached “phobia” explanation out of a serious conversation about racist, homicidal law enforcement and the actual human lives they’ve taken. I generally think it’s unfair to question the legitimacy or “street cred” of anyone who seems to be trying to help the cause for racial equality, but when you’re comparing a spider to a teenager whose family had to look at his dead body in the street for the better part of the day, you kind of force my hand.
There is legitimacy to some of what Brandon wrote, but it is written from a comfortable place of applying cutesy anecdotes to hideous death. When he ends with “This is a plea to those officers who are unflinching in the gravest of dangers, whose courage is forged in the crucible of our nation’s worst emergencies, yet who lose all composure when facing the grimace of a Black man” it is almost a wistful request that focuses more on how great racist white police officers are overall, like hey there buddy, you know I think you’re a hero and you’re totally amazing and hey if you could maybe not be so terrified of my people that you gun us down in the street that’d be cool but also I understand why you are afraid, it’s called Negrophobia and it’s a really big deal so I get it TRUST ME hey I have this thing with spiders…
The harshest word he has to offer about Negrophobia is that at one point, he calls it “unjustified.” That one word is a starting point from which he could have examined this issue. It is documented that Eric Garner and Mike Brown were physically large men. The rampant dehumanization of black people is absolutely exacerbated by physical size. There is an intimidation factor. But if you write about the size of these men; if you write about Negrophobia at all, and every single world that follows that headline does not explicitly emphasize that it is completely unacceptable, you risk giving a tidy excuse to people that do us harm.
There are many people in the world who would do us harm and who are racist. There, Brandon. I said it for you. R-A-C-I-S-T. You have good things to say, but here, you’ve unfortunately chosen to express them in a way that reads as a handy how-to guide for the Negrophobic, and also a tidy excuse for someone to claim if their Negrophobia flares up and they kill one of us again.
I hope young Brandon understands the reason for the blowback he’s getting. It is not up to me what words any other writer chooses or how they express themselves. I write things too—you’re reading one of them right now—and it isn’t always easy and no one is perfect. But if you are sincerely writing about innocent lives lost via a term that you link to the definition of at UrbanDictionary.com, that might be your first clue that the balance is off between the seriousness of your subject matter and your definition of why it is happening.
I have linked to Brandon’s full piece here, via DoNotLink.com, because I’m not supporting Negrophobia.