By John Lee
Recently in my English class, we read the short story, “Breaking and Entering,” by author Sherman Alexie. It told a fictional account, in the point-of-view of film editor George Wilson, of his encounter with an African-American teenager who broke and entered into his home. Wilson recalls this incident in which he swings his son’s baseball bat in self-defense and fear, unintentionally killing the young Elder Briggs and sparking a controversy with the African-American population that suffers many of these “cruel” killings by the white majority.
The only thing is, Wilson isn’t white. He’s actually Spokane Native American.
Although this story is a work of fiction, it still brings forth several important questions and truths about general human nature and the more specific issues of racial conflict and discrimination.
One of these questions is: how many killings of African-Americans in the real world have been wrongly mistaken for events of racism, as in Wilson’s case? Wilson makes it clear that he had no intention of killing Briggs, and he had no idea that Briggs was black. All he knew was that there was an intruder in his home, and when he saw that intruder run towards him as if to tackle him, his immediate reaction was to swing the bat he was wielding. So did Wilson swing because he hated African-Americans? Of course not. But does the public know that? Of course not.
This is where the media comes into play. Bolstering their reputations of being corrupt and manipulative, the news channels in the story twist Wilson’s account, portraying him as a contemptuous white man who purposefully killed an innocent black kid out of hatred. They also show clips of films that Wilson has edited before, intentionally including only the most violent and crudest of scenes in order to wrongly portray Wilson in a negative light.
So what does this tell us about society in the real world? We, as humans, naturally tend to only see what we want to see, and we ignore everything outside that spectrum.
Several incidents of such type occur every year in the real world, going back to the 1950s with the tragic case of Emmett Till to even just two years ago with Trayvon Martin. And in all of these incidents, we see one side that defends the victim and another side that defends the committer of the homicide. Now, I’m not saying all of these occurrences were misunderstandings and that we should be supporting the killers. Of course, probably most of these were outright murders due to a discriminatory viewpoint that still exists today.
But how many of these were misunderstandings? That’s a question we’ll never be able to answer if we continue to turn our eyes away from the truth. And it’s sad to say, but for those cases that were misunderstandings, we also have to ask ourselves, Who’s the real victim here? Althea Briggs, Elder’s mother, is seen in an interview where she emotionally accuses Wilson of being “yet another white man who was always looking to maim another black kid.” When we hear someone say something like this on TV, we tend to flock together to support them, feeling perhaps some innate guilt for actions that we ourselves have not even committed.
But is this not exploitative? We see this argument so many times, but have we ever considered how unfair it is to use the struggles of your ancestors in order to gather sympathy for something you yourself did not experience? Furthermore, Wilson, or rather Alexie, brings up a great point by noting that generations of Native Americans have also been persecuted by white men. As Wilson says, this is not a pain contest or the Genocidal Olympics. Whether or not the victim was innocent or the killer was guilty, it is simply wrong to exploit the history of others as well as the history of one’s own people.
So what’s the point I’m trying to get at here?
Humans need to learn to see these kinds of situations in varying perspectives. There’s a reason why Alexie decided to tell the story in the viewpoint of a Native American man. We see and hear so many of these similar stories through the eyes of the victims, but by introducing a new perspective, Alexie really demonstrates something important to us readers. We will never be able to truly see all the variables in cases like these. But it’ll definitely help to at least try.
Whether that means white people need to learn that not all blacks that look suspicious actually have something to be suspicious of, or whether that means black people need to learn that not all incidents like these are results of racism, it’s clear that both sides have some work to do.