When Being at the Table Is Traumatizing

February 13, 2017

When it aired recently, my husband and I became a bit obsessed with the miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016). We were both teenagers during that infamous trial. The trial was a cultural phenomenon that was impossible to escape back then, and more than 20 years later, we were drawn back into the spectacle, remembering the trial but also the atmosphere at the time.

We recalled vividly how engrossed the entire community was as its events unfolded, with spirited discourses in barbershops and during family dinners. We remembered the specter of the Los Angeles (and, by extension, the Watts) riots—the memories of which the trial often subtly or expressly invoked. We remembered the complicated racial implications of the trial, and what an acquittal would mean for a justice system that wasn’t always just for people of color. We vividly remembered those racial politics, and, given the racial climate of some two decades later, it all felt entirely too pertinent and familiar.

One scene in particular hit me hard. Chris Darden (who was wonderfully played by Sterling K. Brown) was expressing rage at his co-counsel, Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson), who’d insisted on putting Detective Mark Furhman on the stand as a witness. If you’ll remember, Det. Furhman had a demonstrated history of using racial epithets, and would ultimately invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when asked if he’d planted evidence at the crime scene. Darden’s warnings to not put Furhman on the stand would go unheeded, which would arguably cost them the trial. In a powerful scene, Darden angrily tells Clark, “You put me in this trial because you wanted a black face, but the truth is . . . you never wanted a black voice.”

And there it is. That one sentence articulates the experiences of so many of us who have been invited to the tables of influence, but whose voices would ultimately be muted because we did not affirm the majority culture’s perspective. So many homogenous entities want a different face, but not necessarily a different voice.

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