After a video of Stacey Eden berating a racist woman on a train went viral yesterday, the internet became one big life-affirming carnival of good vibes. “Faith in humanity restored!” it cried.
However, I don’t know how I feel about one aspect of Stacey’s video. In it, she defends Hafeez and Khalida Bhatti, who are being abused by a woman sitting opposite them on the train. “Have some respect. ... You got nothing nice to say don't say anything. It's simple,” she says.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Stacey should have intervened. Ashitha Nagesh has argued that she was displaying a "white savior complex", and spoke over Hafeez when he tried to say something. This has made lots of people who'd just had their faith in humanity restored by a 90-second video very unhappy. Personally, I think she was right to intervene, but should have perhaps checked the signals first, and asked Hafeez and Khalida if it was ok.
But this aside, there's another issue that hasn't been raised. For the video isn’t just an expose of racism, but a new and strange sort of anti-racism selfie.
As we know, most people can now film whatever’s happening in front of them whenever they like. This has led to a new type of video cropping up every so often on social media. It’s what I’d call the “look at this awful person” video. Examples include “look at this racist tram lady”, “look at these racist Chelsea fans in Paris”, and “look at this woman push a cat into a bin”. In all of these instances, the video has always been filmed by a bystander, and the focus has almost always been on the awful person. And it’s been valuable: in most cases, the video usually leads to police action and some sort of punishment.
There’s also a slight variation of this, which is the “look at this awful person being taken down” videos. One example includes the video of the woman who “took down” anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic in December. At first I thought Stacey’s was one of these. But then I saw the credit in the corner of the screen: Stacey Eden. She not only stars in the video, but has directed it as well. Suddenly, it became something uncomfortably different. It was a “look at this awful person – and me!“ video.
Why did she decide to film it before intervening? To provide evidence to the Police? She’s already written on Facebook that she’s talking to them, so great – if it’s needed, her video will help with their inquiry. But then why did she upload it to Facebook? It's still great that she did it, but that's weird, isn’t it?
I can see why you’d want to a record such awful abuse so that the perpetrator can be punished, but showing it to the world is another thing. What was the point? What is being gained by showing people that racism exists, and can be countered by stating the obvious?
Maybe the point was to make people feel good by showing an awful person being overcome by a good argument. We all love those moments in films, where a loathsome character gets it handed to them. My favourite is in Good Will Hunting, when a pretentious Harvard student with a ponytail tries to exert his intellectual superiority over Will Hunting’s friend by plagiarising a textbook he’s read. But Will (played by Matt Damon) is able to quote directly from the book he’s referencing (and even knows the page number – zing!). “How do you like these apples!?” he shouts at him afterwards.
Anyone watching Stacey Eden’s video will have likely been echoing this sentiment – how do you like THOSE apples racist old woman? But to me, this feels like the only enjoyment people are getting out of the video. The only thing they're gaining is vindication of a belief they already held.
The thing with good deeds is that you do them to help someone else, not yourself. So good on Stacey for standing up to racism, but does the world really need to know that she did it? If someone being racist doesn’t go viral, does that mean it goes unpunished? The answer is no: you can still stick up for someone, film it, and still take your footage to the police. And Stacey was right to do this. But if part of her intention was to also share it with the world and be placed at the centre of it, I have to intervene and say: that’s kind of weird.
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