Guest Blogger and Harper Grey Associate, Nicola Virk, relays her reactions and takeaways from watching the Netflix Miniseries “When They See Us” created, co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay
This disturbing four part series follows the true stories of Korey Wise (16-years old), Kevin Richardson (14-years old), Antron McCray (15-years old), Yusef Salaam (15-years old), and Raymond Santana (14-years old) as they are wrongfully accused, convicted and imprisoned for the violent rape and assault of a white woman in Central Park, New York in 1989.
This series documents how the various societal systems (media, policing, judicial, and education) intersected to reinforce the structural racism that these boys and their families experienced. Each of these boys ended up spending five to twelve years in prison before they were exonerated in 2002.
The three key things I learned from this series:
1. The importance of language
“When They See Us” shows the role language played in dehumanizing and “othering” Black men in society. The use of language in the series that was used to perceive the boys as “animals” and “savages” contributed to stereotyping and perpetuating systemic racism. It reminded me of the need to be cognizant of the type of language I use in my everyday life to ensure I’m not inadvertently, or overtly, using language that perpetuates a racial hierarchy.
2. The need to educate ourselves
This series exemplified the strong influence of biased media in shaping public perception and, in this particular example, how that influence shaped the course of the investigation into the crime. We should not blindly consume what the media tells us, rather, we need to research and educate ourselves about controversial events such as these. Most importantly, we should not rely on the People of Colour in our life to educate us on these issues, we need to do the work ourselves. Our learning about racism is not the responsibility of our Black friends. There are numerous books, literature, shows and podcasts that we can use to begin this learning, and watching this show is a good place to start.
3. It’s okay to be uncomfortable
I felt a pit in my stomach as I watched this series. Watching this series was disturbing and made me extremely uncomfortable as I watched the abusive and cruel treatment of these Black children. However, this feeling is a necessary component of facing and dismantling racism. If talking or watching a show about racism makes us feel uncomfortable that does not mean we should shy away from the conversation or change the channel. When we feel this discomfort, we cannot be silent, we need to ask ourselves why we are feeling such discomfort and take steps to address it. The discomfort is an important part of growth and the unlearning our privilege.
About the Author
Nicola Virk is an associate at Harper Grey working with their Commercial Litigation and Insurance Law Groups. Nicola joined Harper Grey in 2018 as a summer student and completed her articles with the firm. She was called to the BC bar in 2020. During law school, Nicola was a member of the University of Victoria’s Wilson Moot Team. She also volunteered with the University of Victoria’s Student Law Centre, Access Pro Bono, and Pro Bono Students Canada. Most recently, Nicola has enjoyed volunteering with the Marketing and Communications section of the CBA BC Women Lawyers Forum (WLF), look out for her upcoming article about the Dear LiL Blog in WLF’s Winter Newsletter.