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“When They See Us”: The story of all black people

The hit series “When They See Us” on Netflix and the racially biased incident that just took place in Phoenix, Arizona, are reminders that the vision of the majority of white people are still clouded by racial bias.

Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is currently the most watched series on Netflix in the US. Beyond the US, many more people have equally been transfixed, particularly on the African continent. DuVernay’s deeply moving depiction and humanisation of the five black men, known as the Central Park Five, who were exonerated of raping a white woman did two things: It highlighted the importance of black people telling their own stories, because no one else tells it better. No one else can accurately convey the pain and experience and cultural realities that these stories possess. Secondly, it underlined the urgency that exists for Africans and black people generally to own their own media in order to control their narrative.

When They See Us, the title of the series, raises questions of who is doing the seeing. Does the white person really see us? And if he/she sees us, what do they see us as? Just last week, in Phoenix, Arizona, a four-year-old black girl picked up a US$1 dollar from a store while with her parents. The cashier called the police on the family. The police did what American police officers do – they pulled guns, swore at the couple, manhandled them (the woman is pregnant) and threatened to shoot them. But, as the Western media does, the American press’s headlines reported that the four-year-old had been stealing.

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While one can say that DuVernay’s series is probably an attempt to force the world to see us, for many black people, they remain unseen. Would a four-year-old white girl who took a US$1 from a store be said to have stolen the doll? The American press is the first culprit, just like they were in the case of the now-exonerated Central Park Five, who were immediately labelled and judged by the media in a display of racist sensationalism.

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The adultizing of black children is a weapon that has been used not just in America but everywhere the white man has set foot, including in former colonial states. The black boy’s humanity is taken from him by ascribing adjectives to him that would never be used on his white counterpart. This adultization creates room to then view the black boy only through a certain lens of animality and criminality, thus justifying any cruelty inflicted on the black child.

The same script continues to be in play to this day. In the eyes of many white people, a 15-year-old black child is a full adult, capable of criminality. When They See Us makes one wonder, how do they see us? How do black people want to be seen? For centuries, the first step in creating an environment for the oppression of the black child is to strip away his or her childish innocence by refusing to label and acknowledge him or her as a child, and then proceed to violate such a child. This fact can be traced back to the many rubber plantations that Africans worked for the colonialists and to the children used in places like the Congo to mine minerals. And the incident that just occurred in Phoenix, Arizona, shows that this way of “seeing us” is still clouding the vision of white people the world over.

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