White Lies, Black Boogeyman

During my second year of medical school, we had a weekly course on medicine and humanities. In it we tackled various social topics and how they played out in healthcare settings — ranging from caregiver burnout to sexism to domestic abuse. The class and its readings provided us with a reprieve from cumbersome histology and pathology lectures, and helped us better understand the pervasive influence of structural issues on medical outcomes.

The director assigned two readings for the week we were to discuss alcoholism. One was an empathic tale explaining how an Irish family patriarch came to struggle with alcohol abuse and the tragic context in which he passed his predilection for imbibing to his young son. The other was a nonfiction story called “Brute” by Richard Selzer, about a white emergency room doctor and his encounter with an intoxicated Black man who had sustained a laceration on his forehead.

A physician himself, Selzer based the narrative on a true experience he had as an overworked and exhausted clinician facing a challenging patient. In this telling, however, the Black male patient was vividly described in racialized animalistic terms — a mythical bull-like beast. Bucking. Snarling. Nostrils flaring. Flinging policeman around like pesky gnats. Menacing. Murdering.

Anything but human.

The honorable white ER doctor struggles to treat his unruly subject, and the story concludes with him being drawn into the rage of this intimidating Black creature, becoming a “brute” himself as he violently sutures and ties his patient’s earlobes to the stretcher in order to complete the stitching of his laceration. Nowhere in the story is context given behind the Black man’s life, background, who he loves, or the origins of his inebriated state. No, that is reserved for the verbally abusive, wife-beating white alcoholic in the other narrative. He is deserving of such context.

Being one of the few Black males in my class, people charged me with the task of bringing the problematic nature of this story to our instructors.

“David, you need to say something,” I remember one of my fellow Black colleagues telling me.

I presented our concerns to the course co-director, a white woman who always led the charge against misogyny yet was conspicuously silent on all things racial. She dismissed me as “misreading” the story and instructed me to think more about it — which I did, as I made copies of the story and distributed to every Black administrator and faculty in the medical school. They were equally concerned and elevated our complaint to the course director, a white male professor nationally renowned for his work in medical ethics. He listened to our objections and even entertained our suggestions that he could utilize the story as part of a week discussing “racism in medicine.” Ultimately he rejected that idea and instead offered to remove the story from the curriculum entirely, but not before lecturing me about how there was a better, more tactful way to voice my objection to his course’s content.

That was almost 30 years ago. A few years after Charles Stuart, a white man in Boston, shot his pregnant wife in the head and himself in the stomach, alleging that a Black assailant had robbed them at gunpoint — all for the money in her life insurance policy. A year or two before Susan Smith, the white woman in South Carolina who concocted a story about a Black man robbing her at gunpoint and kidnapping her two young boys. In actuality, she had strapped them both in their seat belts as she sent her car off a boat ramp into a lake, drowning them within minutes. All because the chief executive at the company where she worked told her he wanted to be with her but didn’t want a family.

In both cases, fabricated stories of Black predators and white victimhood were believed without question. In both cases, law enforcement subsequently profiled, harassed, and interrogated any random Black man they could find, traumatizing numerous families and communities in the process.

Why?

The fantastical and terrifying Black boogeyman.

He exists in the psyche of many white people in the United States. A byproduct of overactive racialized fantasies. A figment of their imagination. A common scapegoat for all their shortcomings, failures, insecurities, and capitalistic ambitions. The Obama to your Trump. He exists because they know large pockets of American society will believe them when they conjure him up. A literal Candyman, Mandingo, and Shaka Zulu warrior all wrapped into one exquisite imaginary monster, hunting them down even if they don’t speak his name five times in the mirror.

His only purpose is to rape white women with his large phallus, rob white people of everything they’ve worked so hard for, and incite endless violence and destruction, leaving nothing but a trail of chaste pasty bodies in his wake.

Was he born out of generations-long guilt over how white supremacy was constructed and maintained on the social atrocities of slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison industrial system? Angst over the historical racist policies and institutions that have kept a metaphorical knee on the neck of Black America for hundreds of years? Have white people conveniently buried the racial sins of American history like a corpse in their backyard, and now their fragile collective psyche is afraid that the chickens have come home to roost like so many phantoms in a Poltergeist-themed horror movie?

Whatever the origin story of this exaggerated racial caricature they have created may be, it doesn’t matter now. He’s here to stay. Meanwhile, the Susan Smiths of the world have mutated into BBQ Becky, Permit Patty. Golfcart Gail, Cornerstone Caroline, and most recently Amy Cooper. All of them more evolved iterations of the former, invoking racialized tropes seemingly at will in order to appease their insatiable need to play the victim. Calling 911 on Black people everywhere for everything under the sun. Not necessarily to cover up their own crimes, but simply because they can — and to report the audacity of Black people to engage in even the most mundane of activities without their approval. Walking. Shopping. Barbecuing. Driving. Learning. Swimming. Eating. Breathing. Existing.

I use these white women’s social media nicknames not out of respect for their privacy, but because they don’t deserve acknowledgement as human beings with real feelings. They are faceless, race-baiting drones who, when feeling threatened, anxious or bored, thrive on weaponizing an already racist police force into injuring, incarcerating, or murdering Black men.

The lies told by these white women are anything but little. Their histrionics mislead first responders and law enforcement, leading to testosterone-filled encounters that choose shooting first over de-escalation tactics. They constitute a proverbial dog whistle, wielding words like “threatened” and “suspicious” that inspire trigger-happy white cops and citizens with guns to act out their innermost prejudicial fantasies with impunity.

The Black boogeyman in today’s society doesn’t have a gender or age in the eyes of these fragile demons. Anyone of a darker hue can fit the description. Even pre-pubescent Black girls and boys who sell water or play with toy guns pose a threat in their passive-aggressive world.

The fictional story I read for my medical school humanities class had the roles all twisted. The reality for Black America is that our worst nightmare exists in the physical embodiment of a fair-haired maiden with pale skin. A Goldilocks-like apparition with the rotting heart of an evil queen.

She’s the true brute.

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Physician. Public Health Advocate. Writer. Activist

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David Malebranche

David Malebranche

Physician. Public Health Advocate. Writer. Activist

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