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Decentering Whiteness in the Wake of a North Carolina Tragedy

During early Sunday morning, tragedy struck various communities across the state of North Carolina. From one perspective, tragedy came after receiving word that Felecia Harris, 49, Darlene McGee, 46, and Jahnice Baird, 6, had been involved in a fatal collision on Interstate 85 in Orange County. A fourth victim, Jahnia King, 9, Harris’s youngest daughter and only survivor of the crash, remains in good condition at UNC Hospitals. From another, tragedy struck upon the ivory towers of higher education and social elitism after learning that the driver of the vehicle responsible for the damage and loss of life was a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a fraternity brother in Sigma Phi Epsilon.

This tragedy informed my decision to write on the necessity of “decentering whiteness” and how we should understand interruption of life, Black life specifically, as a call to action. Lazy reporting by media, pictures of the victims included as afterthoughts, and the driver responsible for their deaths depicted as a ‘careless’ UNC student all live up to the white media’s historical and contemporary silence surrounding the loss of Black life. It is no surprise that pictures of the driver responsible have floated around more than calls for the ‘Celebration of Life for Darlene McGee’.

It is imperative that we understand how all forms of violence interrupt vulnerable communities and marginalized groups — police brutality interrupting communities of color, incarceration and deportation interrupting families, and sexual violence interrupting the mental health, wellbeing, and safety of women and girls.

While the driver, Chandler Michael Kania, 20, (whose name I debated leaving out so as to decenter whiteness, but felt strongly that any erasure would be to his benefit) has been charged with a number of felony charges: for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, for having an open container while operating a motor vehicle, and for careless and reckless driving. At this time, there has been no mention of whether or not the district attorney plans to file manslaughter charges against Kania. And while we can assume the district attorney’s office will seek to prosecute Kania to the fullest extent of the law, I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping our elected and appointed officials accountable.

However, as Orisanmi Burton writes in ‘Resisting State Violence’, we should exercise caution when relying on the criminal justice system, “a massive apparatus of state violence and racial containment,” which has historically enabled anti-Black genocide. Because reliance on this system is a mode of “centering whiteness,” where we implicitly affirm its capacity to provide justice, we set a precedent that allows whiteness to continue enacting harm and death, both slow and immediate, against Black bodies.

It is my aim to call our attention to the necessity of decentering whiteness from our criminal justice system, our programming, our activism, and our media.

To decenter whiteness means to see Kania as a man of sound mind who chose to drink to the point of intoxication then decide to operate his vehicle along a major interstate. To center whiteness means seeing Kania as a rising Junior at the University of North Carolina; a young man with much potential and a bright future. When Centering whiteness we neglect to acknowledge the personal stories and lived experiences of the lives that were interrupted by Kania’s actions.

We know more about the troubled past of Dylann Roof, who massacred nine lives in Charleston, SC, June 17, 2015, yet very little about the lives of the deceased. We fail to understand the complexity and completeness of the victim’s personhood when those victims are Black. I can appreciate President Obama’s eulogy for state senator and church pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, but along with his reverence, I have to interrogate the value of Blackness when it is lived without institutional titles or male privilege. Thinking back to how our country gravitated toward Michael Brown, a young Black man shot by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, after learning that Brown was a recent high school graduate and expected to begin at Vatterott College two days later. It was this respectability that won Brown compassion from the public and decidedly broke the dichotomy between criminal and innocent that overwhelmed much of the media reporting.

When it comes to media reports on white males that commit crimes against Black bodies, the media usually follows two patterns. If there is a criminal record or any assumption of guilt on the part of a deceased Black person, the media hones in on this and focuses intensely. It implicitly associates past criminal record or possible “illegal” actions or motives as a pivot for justifying needless death.

Opposite this, when the deceased has nothing criminal or possibly illegal to offer up, the media fades into silence surrounding the personal history and legacy belonging to the Black life taken. The media would rather focus on what went wrong with the white male in question who enacted the violence than the lives of the Black victims.

This is why the non-indictment and not guilty verdict of Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman, respectively came as no surprise, because the public was able to indict the Black community. This is why you see more pictures of Chandler Michael Kania circulating through social media than pictures of Felecia Harris, Darlene McGee, Jahnice Baird, or Jahnia King.

Information regarding the wellbeing of the victim’s families does not appear to be in high supply and as talk about Kania possibly avoiding jail time grows, I worry. In fact, I would estimate that most learned about this story on the basis of the driver which has been headlined as ‘UNC student causes accident on I-85’ rather than upon the basis of the family who has lost more in one moment than could ever be replaced in a lifetime.

The lives of these four victims were important before their run in with Kania on Interstate 85. In fact, without knowing much about their lives, I unambiguously know they matter. The Black Lives Matter movement brought to our attention ways white privilege has become a mechanism able to endanger the lives of phenotypically Black human beings in this very instance.

Most media will not understand that their reporting allows white supremacy to proliferate by centering Kania as a respectable, middle class, white man. The media will not understand this as an example of how white privilege and masculinity created a powder keg sparked by Kania choosing to drink and drive while already under the influence of alcohol.

I want to be clear, while racial profiling had less to do with this tragedy than other more public sites of violence, whiteness and white privilege still had a heavy hand in the circumstances surrounding the death of Felecia Harris, Darlene McGee, and Jahnice Baird, as men are almost twice as likely than women to drive while under the influence of alcohol.

As we discuss ways to indict our criminal justice system for state sanctioned brutality against people of color, we must also construct a way to indict white supremacy for its terrorism. Alas, I am conflicted and unsure how one would begin to decenter whiteness from life. To do so would lead to a radical revision of history and contemporary politics by allowing one or more narratives to exist. Narratives that are shaped and influenced by surviving years upon years of oppression. I am hopeful.

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Ishmael Bishop attends the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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