When You Forget to Whistle Vivaldi

Last week Johnathan Ferrell had a horrible car crash. He broke out the back window to escape and walked, injured, to the nearest home hoping for help. Ferrell may have been too hurt, too in shock to remember to whistle Vivaldi. Ferrell is dead.

Social psychologist Claude Steele revolutionized our understanding of the daily context and cognitive effects of stereotypes and bias. The title of his book alludes to a story his friend, NY Times writer, Brent Staples once shared. An African American man, Staples, recounts how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved about Chicago as a free citizen and graduate student. To counter the negative effects of white fear he took to whistling a classical music piece by Italian composer Vivaldi. It was a signal to the victimless victims of his blackness that he was safe. Dangerous black men do not listen to classical music, or so the hope goes. The incongruence between Staples’ musical choices and the stereotype of him as a predator were meant to disrupt the implicit, unexamined racist assumptions of him. It seems trite perhaps, an attempt to make whites feel at ease unless we recall the potential consequences of white dis-ease for black lives.

I do not know many black people who do not have a similar coping mechanism. I have been known to wear university branded clothing when I am shopping for real estate. A friend straightens her hair when she is job seeking. Another friend, a Hispanic male, told me that he shaves all his facial hair when entertaining white clients to signal that he is respectable. While stereotype threat can occur to any member of any group, it occurs most frequently and with more dangerous consequences for groups for whom there are more and stronger negative beliefs.

Of course, the oft-quoted idiom that respectability politics will not save you is true. Just as wearing long johns is not a preventative measure against rape for women, affecting middle class white behaviors is not a protective measure but a talisman. In exerting any measure of control over signaling that we are not dangerous or violent or criminal we are mostly assuaging the cognitive stress that constant management of social situations causes.

That stress has real consequences. Steele inspired an entire body of research on the those effects. When the object of a stereotype is aware of the negative perception of her, that awareness constrains all manner of ability and performance. From testing scores of women who know the others in the room believe women cannot do math to missing a sports play when one is reminded that Asians don’t have hops, the effects of stereotype threat are real.

Perhaps more interesting to me is what Steele described as the constant background processing that stereotyped people engage. It’s like running too many programs in the background of your computer as you try to play a YouTube video. Just as the extra processing, invisible to the naked eye, impacts the video experience the cognitive version compromises the functioning of our most sophisticated machines: human bodies.

I mentioned just today to a colleague that for all we social scientists like to talk about structural privilege it might be this social-psychological privilege that is the most valuable. Imagine the productivity of your laptop when all background programs are closed. Now imagine your life when those background processes are rarely, if ever, activated because of the social position your genetic characteristics afford you.

Of course, privilege is sometimes structural. But the murder of Johnathan Ferrell reminds us that activation of stereotype threat in daily interactions can be aided and abetted by organizational processes like the characterization of a police call to 911 and structural legitimacy like the authority of the police to shoot first and ask questions later. I am choosing to ignore how that process was set in motion. Perhaps better feminist scholars than myself can explore the historical, cultural gendered fear that legitimizes the unconscious bias of black men as sexual and criminal predators. I find I do not have the stomach for it today.

I just read an article that quotes Ferrell’s family at length. His family’s attorney did not just want us to know that Ferrell was a friend and son but that:

“He’s engaged to be married, he has a dog and a cat, he was driving a Toyota Camry, he survived an accident, had 3.7 GPA, a chemistry major. This is not someone who posed a threat to the officers or anyone else, this is an everyday American.”

A 3.7 GPA.

They want us to know that their murdered friend, son, brother and cousin had a 3.7 GPA.

Ferrell may have been too injured, too shocked to whistle Vivaldi to all he encountered the night he was shot. It may not have helped if he had through slammed doors, over police sirens, and gunfire. But even in death his family cannot help but signal to us all that he was a student and, by extension, a human being whose death should matter.

Whistling Vivaldi in tribute, a talisman and hope that justice will hear what its executor’s did not.

11 thoughts on “When You Forget to Whistle Vivaldi

  1. This is a very difficult column to respond to.
    I have a friend who is on the SWAT team here. Two weeks ago he and three of his fellow officers shot a man to death who it turns out was probably mentally ill, certainly depressed, and had been incorrectly identified by a 911 dispatcher as having injured his wife in a domestic dispute. The officers tried to Taser him. When that failed to stop him, they shot him. Dead.
    How is this different from Mr. Ferrell’s tragedy?
    The dead man was white. My friend, the SWAT officer is Black. I did not for one second entertain the thought that my friend was doing anything other than carrying out his duties as a professional law enforcement officer.
    I’m trying to with-hold judgement in the death of Mr. Ferrel until all the facts are in.

    1. Chris, I’m very sorry about what happened to your friend, but you seem to miss the point of this post. Accidents happen. Just over the weekend, two (presumably) innocent bystanders were shot by police in Times Square. People get shot when they’re not supposed to all the time. This does not mean that your friend’s death is not a tragedy that points to how police and other officials often misread the actions of those struggling with mental health issues.

      But Tressie is pointing to this shooting as a symptom of a larger problem that disproportionally (and violently) harms people of color in America, particularly black men. Even as you wait for all the facts to arrive, you should know that for many Black people this is just another example of a black man being profiled and judged a threat and then being killed.

      Tressie’s post reminds me of dear cousin, a senior at Michigan and a poster boy for the respectability crowd*, who wrote one day on facebook “whenever there’s a crime alert on campus, I just stay in my dorm room until they find out who did it.” He’s 20, and he could easily be the next Mr. Ferrel. And we all know it. I wonder if my cousin kid, who just took his GREs in preparation for grad school*, has to skip classes on those days when he knows it’s not safe to leave his room, if he gets to go to the library late at night to study, even though he’s the kind of guy who writes thank you notes and visits his old-lady relatives when he comes to town.* Or is he like a guy a colleague told me about who couldn’t run to get to his Harvard classes* when he was running late without getting stopped by the Cambridge police.

      *yes, I just whistled Vivaldi…

      1. Tricia,
        Thanks for the note.
        No I did not miss Tressie’s point, and you need to read my reply closer; my friend was not the party killed, my friend is the Black police officer who did the shooting.
        My point was that jumping to any conclusion, especially one based on race can be wrong, especially if it is premature.
        And yes I get the Vivaldi allusion. As a man I am very cognizant that women in a given circumstance, e.g. alone at night on an otherwise deserted street might find me to be a threat (even though I know I am not). In those circumstance I too am aware that it is the circumstance that creates the judgement, and I cross the street so as to alleviate any anxiety I might create, even unintentionally.
        We all know what is in our heart, but we can never be sure what is in another’s. I understand that many Black men feel they are being unfairly judged and might act to counter that unfair assumption. But regardless assumptions will be made. That is an unfortunate and hard fact of life.
        I know nothing about Mr. Ferrel. I know the police officer has been arrested and charged (appropriately). This does not bring back Mr. Ferrel’s life. That is the tragedy. My only point was that it would be wrong to pre-judge this event. And I used my experience to illustrate my reason. That’s all.

        1. My apologies for missing that fact about who you are friends with (I saw it but forgot). I still disagree with you and what you’ve said in this response makes me disagree with you more, but I suspect there’s no common ground to be had here.

  2. Is it a stereotype if it is true? If my home is robbed by a black person while I’m at work should I have a fear of another black person robbing me or a white person? I am a black female in AL. I don’t fear white people behaving badly I fear other black people behaving badly. Is there something wrong with me or is my fear grounded in reality?
    What you’ve said about Ferrell is profound and but I think of him as collateral damage. He was unjustly executed for the crimes of others. Aren’t the stereotypes and misconceptions of our race somewhat grounded in reality. How can we be perceived as being exceptional people when the reality is just the opposite. Is it the man that has kept us down or have we squandered many opportunities to change the stereotypes.

  3. I wrote about this last week as well: https://spirituwellness.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/heartbreak/

    Thank you so much for this post. I think you point to something that is missing from the general conversation about profiling. As a black man, I sometimes have to step outside of myself to forget how I have internalized other people’s problems with me. I am not bad; I have no crimes to commit. But I am perceived as a threat because of the color of my skin…I am the one who adjusts how I walk to not make people uncomfortable; I am the one who will make an effort to put people at ease. Black men have so deeply internalized a kind of twisted guilt over the stereotyping that I think it is messing with our heads. Just once, I would like a white male to step into my shoes for a day and really understand what its like to be profiled, from everyone from the government, to the police, to small innocent children who have already been poisoned with suspicion for my color.

    Thank you again!


  4. Saundra,

    Yes it is a stereotype. There are people of all races who commit crimes, and the percentages of black versus white people and so forth are portrayed with biases. Black people are profiled and therefore less likely to get away with a crime, also black people have to deal with more poverty than white people and are more likely to be swept into crime and gangs because of that. The fear is real, but the truth of the situation is that black people are viewed as dangerous and treated as such and are then also forced to live in a dangerous world. It may be safer for them to be dangerous themselves. The point I am trying to get across is that it is too complex of an issue, and saying that it is true is unfair in that it only adds to the difficulties black people (especially black men) face in society. It is important that we encourage a new idea in order to make the world more supportive and safer for black men.

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