The video of Eric Garner’s suffocation depicts white police officers putting Garner, a black man, in a chokehold. When these videos surface, different people will interpret the situation in dramatically different ways, according to David Fox, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies.
Fox examines these interpretations in his presentation, “Perceptions of Color: Seeing and Being in the Racialized World.”
On October 4, Fox presented the first installment of the 2018-2019 Madison Smith Presentation Series. The Department of Interdisciplinary Studies will pilot this series, named after Madison Smith, Class of 1873, who was born into slavery in North Carolina, and moved to the north after his emancipation.
“The presentation emerges from my interest in hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, particularly the work of Gadamer and Heidegger, and my concern about the vast ways in which white supremacy, among other things, dictate how we both experience and how we read the world,” wrote Fox in an email to The Phillipian.
Hans-Georg Gadamer and Martin Heidegger were German philosophers. Gadamer was best known for his book “Truth and Method,” and Heidegger was best known for his contributions to phenomenology — the philosophical study of consciousness and experience — and existentialism, the inquiry that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject.
In his presentation, Fox focused on the treatment of underrepresented people of color, primarily black men, versus white people in the criminal justice system. He began with the quote “All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation,” from Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher.
“All acts of seeing, reading, learning — of forming understanding — are interpretations, and I enter those interpretations with previous understandings already in place,” wrote Fox.
During the question and answer portion of his presentation, Fox concluded that he did not possess one overarching thesis statement to combine all of his ideas.
Eddy Lee ’19, an attendee of the presentation, said, “I think of anything I’ve learned here, the most important thing I’ve learned is that there is no right answer. We had so many faculty, we had so many great students… who have written essays, who have read books on these things, but nobody has the answer, no one even is close to an answer. Mr. Fox himself is not close to a thesis… That situation is something that we need to understand, that we need to agree upon, in order for us to build upon, in order for us to make this parachute that we can soften our landing with.”
Lee says she believes that it is becoming increasingly important to explore the topics of interpretation and turn biased preconceptions into more nuanced and reflective perceptions of society.
“It’s important for us, as an institution with a lot of resources, a lot of great faculty, and a lot of great students, to have discussions like these, and to have students, all over campus, come to discussions that don’t just focus on the topics that they want to focus on, but really on topics that affect all of us,” said Lee.
Relying on two recorded encounters between police officers and civilians — Rodney King in 1992 and Eric Garner in 2014 — Fox used both statistical evidence and visual representations to elicit discussions surrounding race and the interpretation of race in America.
“I think [interpretation] is critical to everything, and the core of why two people can both see the same piece of video — the suffocation of Mr. Garner, for example — and one person can see the police officers as using excessive force and another person can see Mr. Garner being a physical threat to the police,” wrote Fox.
“Both videos are read in dramatically different ways by different people, and I wondered why. Using the work of a professor at [The University of California, Berkeley], Judith Butler, I argued that one reason this happens is that we exist in a racially saturated field of visibility: whiteness, throughout the West, is depicted as ‘virgin sanctity’ while blackness is depicted as threatening and dangerous,” wrote Fox.
Jelani Wilson ’19 said he found the videos gruesome but necessary to demonstrate the full picture of what was going on and the ciris it entailed.
“The most striking image that he included was the juxtaposition of the same article, the same company, the same precinct, showing the mugshots of black individuals and then the white individuals in their sports attire. I feel that, when people talk about race and racial relations in this country, they don’t include enough statistics or facts, they include more moral aspects of it. When you actually put numbers and you put data behind it, you can’t argue with the statistics,” said Wilson.
Following his presentation, the attendees engaged in a lengthy discussion incorporating ideas about racial bias and stereotypes that Fox had previously discussed. Members of the community shared their own opinions and experiences with racial perceptions in America.
“I think the fact that so many people were able to stay after the presentation and engage in a pretty substantive conversation, with both faculty and students talking to one another, was great,” wrote Fox.
According to Victoria Kadiri ’20, the presentation and discussions encouraged her to think about her own biases.
“I think that the idea that there is no real neutral bias, [which] I’ve never really thought about that, would make sense of course, because I’m always seeing things in my biased way and I’ve never thought to think, ‘Why do I see things in this way?’ So I thought the talk was really interesting look into life in general and the intersection of race, which is something that we don’t always talk about as a wider campus, so I think it wwwwas important for us as a whole,” said Kadiri.