From Trayvon Martin to Andries Tatane: Cognitive Dissonance and the Black Male Body

By Gillian Schutte · 16 Jul 2013

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Picture: werthmedia/Flickr
Picture: werthmedia/Flickr
George Zimmerman, the Florida neighbourhood watchman who shot dead an unarmed black 17-year-old male last year, has been acquitted of murder.

Lawyers for Mr Zimmerman, 29, argued he acted in self-defence and with justifiable use of deadly force in the death of Trayvon Martin. A jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman voted unanimously in favour of the acquittal.

While Zimmerman’s family and their largely right-wing white supporters celebrated, Martin’s family was devastated. 
They described the acquittal as their darkest hour.

It all began with Martin walking to the neighbourhood shop to buy his young sibling a packet of Skittles and Iced Tea. Wannabe cop, Zimmerman who was on neighbourhood watch that evening saw him and after following him for a while alerted the police.

"Fucking punks. These assholes. They always get away," George Zimmerman, told the police dispatcher as he stalked 17-year-old Trayvon Martin while he was walking home from the café.

And now Trayvon Martin is dead, killed by the man who moments before, uttered those words. 

No matter how many may deny it, he is dead because he was black.  He is dead because to someone else he did not look like a teenager in a hoodie with a Snickers and Iced-Tea in his pocket. 

He was, in Zimmerman’s mind, a criminal and a threat. 

What he was not was a regular boy with a list of great academic and social service credentials and parents who loved and cared for him. Instead he was a walking symbol of criminality – reduced to an inhumane and dangerous sign that exists in the imaginary of the very society that created this ‘other’ him – a him so removed from who he really was that it got him killed.

Frantz Fanon in his seminal text Black Skin, White Masks wrote about the fixed signifier the black male is in the white colonial imaginary – a signifier that contains no variations or possibilities of a human other.  “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief.”

So even while Martin may have told Zimmerman that he lived in the neighbourhood, it fell on deaf ears.  Zimmerman had already decided that Martin was a punk, an asshole and a criminal.

While Fanon wrote about colonized blackness in the 20th century – nothing much has changed in the current epoch because if it had, Trayvon Martin would not be dead. Neither would his killer have been acquitted. 

But Trayvon Martin is dead and his killer is acquitted.

The shock and horror of this information has resonated through the collective consciousness of black people, and black-positive people, right around the world.  It has proclaimed the untenable truth that the black body is not safe where whiteness exists, whether in a colony, settler territory or a democracy.  It demonstrates that no matter how post-race a multicultural discourse tries to convince us we are, this does not accurately reflect the world.

The awful truth is that in a white supremacist society the black body remains a location of violence. The reality is that the black body has an identity that is still confined to and judged upon the colour of the skin. It is this skin, this exterior of the body, which becomes the fundamental focus in a racialised identity. As Fanon denoted, the white man sees only the black skin. It becomes the foundation for all relations. The black man is reduced to his outer coating and body. There is no depth – only surface. He is flattened out and stripped of psychology, emotion and intelligence. Thus the black man does not really exist as a fully-fledged human in this imaginary – he is an object. But more so he is an object that presents a danger to whiteness. He becomes nothing more than a signifier in service to white fear.

Here in South Africa we are shocked and angry at Zimmerman’s acquittal. We paste up Facebook memes that express our outrage. We write about the pain Martin’s parents must be enduring. We commiserate about our own black sons and how unsafe they too would be in the States.

And somehow in all of this we fail to make the connection with the continued violence towards the black male body in South Africa.

Only last year we watched black men being killed in full view of the public, caught on camera, recorded on cell phones, broadcast and witnessed by all.

On March 1, we watched in disbelief and horror as a young Mozambican man, Mido Macia, was forcibly handcuffed to the back of a police van and dragged behind the vehicle as he cried out for them to stop. When the car eventually arrived at the police station eyewitnesses say he was further beaten by the police officers. A few hours later he was found dead in his cell.

Before that we witnessed, on national television, 34 black men being brutally slaughtered in the space of a few minutes in what has become known as the Marikana massacre.

In April 2011, we watched on public television, an unarmed and defenceless Andries Tatane being beaten by police and shot in the chest at close range with rubber bullets.

And then there was the case of an unarmed teenage boy, Thato Mokoka, from Soweto, who was shot seven times by a policeman in his home in full view of his family.

In all cases these were black men standing their ground.  Whether they were demanding better wages, marching for service delivery or simply refusing to be manhandled or profiled, this is what got them killed.  The system, it seems, does not tolerate a black man who is not passive, not paid off and in the pocket of white business pushing a white supremacist agenda or being the black fall-guy for capitalist destruction wreaked by colonisation and neo-colonialism.

And it is not always white men that directly perpetrate the violence against the black body.  Many times it is black men themselves who work for corporate owned states as army, police or security men.  In a frenzy of shattered male identity, black policemen will willingly open fire on their own in service to the state, but also in blind servitude to a 350 year old order in which manhood in South Africa and the USA was defined by the ability of one race of men to oppress and brutalise another.

Perhaps history explains why black policemen will kill their own or why Zimmerman, a man of colour, will racially profile Martin and finally shoot him. They still abide by the logic of white supremacy that some black men must be killed with impunity to keep society-at-large safe.

And President Barack Obama’s restrained reaction in response to the verdict also seemingly plays by the white supremacy rules of engagement. Instead of expressing outrage at and repudiation of the injustice and racism contained within the verdict, he had this to say:

“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

This is colossally inadequate when one considers that the jury was made up of five white women and one Latino woman and with the knowledge that an unarmed black teenager was shot dead for defending himself. It is indicative of a man who has given up on his promise to serve his people and who now serves white supremacy instead -- just as our leaders have sold out the people of South Africa to serve white corporates. And, it seems, white supremacy demands proof of loyalty in bloody sacrifices of those who supposedly pose a threat to their status quo. This manifests in the high statistics of black men killed in honour of white anxiety. In the States a black man is killed every twenty-eight hours by a cop or vigilante while here in South Africa, the statistics are just as high -- and we have indefensible situations such as the Marikana massacre where 34 miners were mowed down in some sort of bizarre sacrifice to the alter of white fear. In all cases justice is either not met or it takes forever to come to fruition.

It is now no longer about “who” did the killing but about “how much value is placed on the killed”.  It is all about how much of a potential threat the person killed is to the white status quo. Based on this heinous logic the system continues to perpetrate violence against the black body and devastate justice and human rights for black people. It also relentlessly pushes the message that a white system does not embrace the humanity of the black human – thus the black person remains stuck in the untenable space between being both savage and invisible in the white supremacist imaginary.

When is this going to change? How much longer must we witness the killing of young black men such as Trayvon Martin and Andries Tatane who are in the end, the sacrificial lambs to this untenable and enduring racism?   
Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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17 Jul

Broaden Scope

Valid and vital points are raised in 'From Trayvon Martin to Andries Tatane: Cognitive Dissonance and the Black Male Body' and we'd do well to interrogate our core beliefs. I'm concerned though that the reduction of examples to one issue, race, constitutes a regrettable silence of its own and may make the argument harder to hear. To see Marikana through a race filter only misses the nuanced reading offered by a simultaneous appreciation of the NUM-AMCU power struggle, to note just one of the many co-existing conditions of that tragedy.

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18 Jul


There are some good insights here, but to reduce everything to white supremacy is as reductionist as reducing everything to economics.

White supremacy certainly explains the Trayvon Martin murder and Zimmerman's acquittal. But it doesn't explain Tatane. That was about local politics in a largely black area where all the actors in the drama were black.

We need a little less sensationalism and a little more nuance here.

18 Jul

White Supremacy

White supremacy has got everything to do with the 'value' placed on the color of the body killed and how justice plays out. Our judicial system is still extremely biased in terms of whiteness.

22 Jul

White Supremacy Doesn't Explain Everything


Any unified theory of causation is lazy. White supremacy doesn't explain the slaughter on the Somme, in the former Yugoslavia etc. Why should it explain the killing of Tatane or the lack of value placed on his life? It just doesn't make any sense.

Poor people are disposable in Brazil, in India, in Zimbabwe and were in most of Europe too up until the 1930s. Class is also a factor when it comes to whose life matters.

I find this analysis as reductive as the Trots ascribing everything to economics while leaving out race and gender. We really do need to think about the intersectionality of modes of oppression.

23 Jul

@Rob - show me a case where 40 white men have been slaughtered in a post-colonial/neo colonial society and we can extract the race factor. Tryavon Martins was middleclass - it was his racial profile that got him killed. The class/economics argument is implicit in my article as seen here.

"In all cases these were black men standing their ground. Whether they were demanding better wages, marching for service delivery or simply refusing to be manhandled or profiled, this is what got them killed. The system, it seems, does not tolerate a black man who is not passive, not paid off and in the pocket of white business pushing a white supremacist agenda or being the black fall-guy for capitalist destruction wreaked by colonisation and neo-colonialism."

The fact that the focus is on race does not make it reductive in my opionion. It makes it an article with the spotlight on the race aspect of value placed on blackness in neo colonial and settler territories.