Paromita Vohra: All you can see

Jul 10, 2016, 02:09 IST | Paromita Vohra

On Thursday, I watched, in spite of myself, the live video of 32-year-old Philando Castile, a black man from Falcon Heights, Minnesota, filmed and broadcast on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, after he was shot point blank by a white policeman, as he reached into his backpocket to pull out the ID he had been asked for.

Immediately after the video was broadcast, it was unavailable for an hour before Facebook made it available again, citing a technical glitch. The question raised was, should such videos — those with graphic violence
— be available on social media?

Demonstators being arrested by the NYPD after they march through the city calling for justice for Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile in New York. Pic/AFP
Demonstators being arrested by the NYPD after they march through the city calling for justice for Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile in New York. Pic/AFP

The answer is, in a world where seeing is, itself such a selective act, does showing have to be differently selective? Can it possibly be, that mysterious word, ‘neutral’ when it’s not what, but how we see?

As per a Guardian survey, in 2015, black people were killed at twice the rate of white, Hispanic and Native Americans. About 33 per cent of the African Americans killed were unarmed, compared with 15 per cent of
white people. Young black men are overwhelmingly among those killed, though they make up less than two per cent of the overall population.

From how some white policeman see, every back pocket is a black pocket and every hand that reaches into it is reaching for a gun, even if unarmed. So, no matter what those who like to see in selective generalities
might say, race overwhelmingly influences who dies. That is to say, the race of the killers, for race, or class, or caste, or gender, do not reside only in the body of the less powerful member of an equation. We cannot
see race at play in the black body and then not see race at play in the white body. Or in the Dalit body and not the upper caste body. Or the female or transgender body and not the male body.

To see identity only in one part of these equations is part of the violence.

And, when the US system never punishes the killers, in this violence, it renders un-seen the reality of the killed and those of their communities and identities.

Someone asked, how could Castile’s girlfriend have the presence of mind to shoot while all this was happening. Oh these times.

How could she not shoot it? If your truth is selectively heard, if the realities of your life are constantly falsified, by social narratives around you, what do you do? How do you remind people, as the spoken word poet
Sarah O Neal eloquently described in her poem “An Overreaction,” about your “kin becoming ghosts” and “understand the seat empty at the dinner table?”

That last line reminded me of an article I read the previous day, about Eid in Dadri. About how quiet it had been, following the mob killing of Ikhlaque Khan. His family’s ghostly Eid, his neighbours’ ghostly Eid with no
food sent over either. How easily a mob, sometimes an administration, sees beef in certain refrigerators, the way white policemen see guns in certain back pockets. And how, such events, variations on this theme, are
rendered un-seen, going unpunished.

What does one whose truth is hidden in plain sight, do, to try and make people see it in its most brutal reality? The answers to hard questions are rarely easy ones.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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