After the death of Erica Garner, the 27-year-old daughter of police-brutality victim Eric Garner, many people who were aware of her activism were left with a sense of loss. Others, including some of the writers at The Root who knew and respected Erica, were stunned at the sudden death of someone so young and so vigilant in her crusade against police brutality.
And then there were the white tears.
These white tears were different. They had nothing to do with Erica Garner, her activism or even her death. Caucasian tear ducts don’t even open for black bodies. They only respond to the perceived oppression of white people. The salty faces were because Erica Garner’s family announced that they would give interviews and comments only to black journalists.
The outcry was immediate and deafening. Some rummaged through knapsacks filled with privilege and fake outrage to find the right words to describe their self-righteous indignation. They made it about themselves and played the “reverse racism” card. They bemoaned the decision as discriminatory. They quickly pivoted from Erica Garner’s death and spoke of how the family had lost their “respect.”
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Their counterargument was obvious: Shouldn’t Erica Garner’s kin talk to any qualified journalist, regardless of skin color? Isn’t their request against everything Erica Garner fought for? If a journalist covers social justice, why should color matter? What about equality?
Although those are legitimate questions, it disregards the fact that black journalists may be more familiar with the cultural dynamic of the grieving process. The collective Caucasian clutching of pearls ignores the notion that the Garner family may simply feel more comfortable talking to black reporters.
More importantly, black media members might be more sympathetic to a black family’s pain and loss. Regardless of their experience, professionalism or allyship, there are certain things even well-meaning white people can sometimes take for granted—intentionally or not. While this idea might seem exclusionary and discriminatory, it is nonetheless true. How do I know?
Because I have been the well-meaning journalist who got a story wrong—not because I was inconsiderate, prejudiced or unqualified—but because I wasn’t as vigilant as someone who was more connected to the story.
In October, The Root was contacted regarding the story of Gemmel Moore. People wanted to know why we weren’t covering the story of a black male escort who died mysteriously in the West Hollywood, Calif., home of a wealthy Democratic donor named Ed Buck.
An editor sent the initial information to me, and I followed up on the story. When I reached out to Moore’s family, I was informed that they did not wish to talk at the moment, which I understood. I thought the story was interesting and important, but without access to the family, I did not pursue it further.
A few weeks later, the same editor received another inquiry on the story and passed it to me again, asking if I was looking into it.
Unaware that media requests were being handled by Jasmyne Cannick, a black journalist, I assumed that Moore’s family were not speaking to media outlets. Instead, I researched the story on my own. I scoured the archives of multiple media outlets from across the country. I read police reports. I waded through campaign donation data and used more than a dozen sources, including Jasmyne Cannick’s stories.
After the story was published, Cannick emailed to me a list of inaccuracies in the story and simultaneously published her email. She called it “horrible and inaccurate.” Even though I have regularly reported on LGBTQ issues, she pointed out that I had wrongly referred to Moore as a “prostitute” instead of as an escort. She wondered if I “personally have issues with Black gay men or the same-gender loving community ... ” She said that I wouldn’t have misspelled Moore’s mother’s name if I had spoken with Moore’s family. She was upset that the story contained news reports that were often more delicate in their portrayal of the rich, white political insider who allegedly killed a young black man than they were to Moore’s memory. She asked if I thought I was doing Moore’s family a favor.
Here’s the thing: She was right.
I could have publicly responded to Cannick. I could have referred to my numerous sources. I could have listed the number of times I had written about homophobia and transphobia in the black community and in America as a whole. I could have reminded her of how many people now knew about Moore’s story, even with the inaccuracies. I could have been as butt-hurt as the nonblack journalists are about the request by Erica Garner’s family. I could have publicly feuded with Cannick, defended my story and made it about me.
But it wasn’t my story. It belonged to Moore’s family. It was Gemmel Moore’s story.
I will never know if I simply contacted Moore’s family at the wrong time or if they were only interested in speaking to members of the press who knew and were sympathetic to the details of Moore’s life and death. But I will get to write many more stories. Some of them, more than likely, will highlight the pervasive disregard for the lives of black members of the gay and transgender community. The nonblack journalists weeping about their mistreatment by Garner’s family will soon have the chance to cover the death of another black activist or person killed because their skin contains a little too much melanin.
The Garner family’s request to speak only with black journalists might seem racist, but it is also prudent. Here’s who probably won’t correctly tell the story of Erica Garner: Anyone who doesn’t respect the wishes of a grieving family.
The Garners’ wish may prevent Erica’s activism from being covered by mainstream outlets, but it also might serve their purpose of making sure her story is told correctly. It might also make media outlets realize that they need to hire more black journalists. It definitely made white people feel uncomfortable.
Not as uncomfortable as, say ... seeing a video of your father getting the life choked out of him being played on an infinite loop. It might not be as displeasing as watching the man whose arms were wrapped around the throat of your father when he died walk away unpunished.
But it still hurts. You can feel it in the angry tweets. However, their flaming, frost-colored ass rage will soon dissipate, and they will eventually recover from their perceived oppression. And they will somehow forge ahead into the bright future, forgetting about the one time a black woman almost caused them to choke to death on their own white tears.
And Erica Garner will still be dead.