The Musings of Two Long-Time Friends

A Camera Is a Shield

A Camera Is a Shield

I was recorded in public by a black person a few months ago after a near-accident in a parking lot. (I misjudged the timing of an oncoming car as I turned left into a parking spot, and we narrowly missed each other. She confronted me as I got out of my car, and I defensively disengaged and fled to the store bathroom when she started recording me.) I worked through it privately with friends and struggled with whether or not to say anything publicly. At the time, I decided there wasn’t any benefit

The situation involving Amy Cooper and her off-leash dog, threatening Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park with the police when he simply asked her to leash her dog has changed my perspective on sharing this reflection.

White people, we have to get used to the notion that when a Black person pulls out a camera, it’s not really about us at all. It’s about preserving their own lives.

In that parking lot, I felt defensive. I worried that the video would get posted out of context and I’d be marked as racist. Much of my personal processing was related directly to that. Were my actions and reactions overtly racist or coated with microaggressions, or was it all just car safety? Why did an incident where no people or property got harmed merit recording at all?

The thing is, Black people have been subject to so much racism that no one believes happens. Even with video evidence, that racism often gets brushed off in the long run. A bit of outrage fades like a flickering candle. The habit of making recordings creates a safety net. Maybe with the camera on, the situation will resolve peacefully–and if it doesn’t, at least people will know.

White people, what we need to understand is that there is a pattern of White people overreacting to even the calmest and most level-headed Black people and calling the cops over nothing. There is a pattern of cops killing Black people unprovoked.

So, that camera is the only self-defense they’ve got, and even with it, some of them still lose their lives.

She was angry because of the near-accident, but she wasn’t safe to express her anger without a camera involved. She didn’t know how I’d react if she just started off the bat with, “You almost hit my car!” She had to protect herself as she expressed herself.

It feels threatening to be recorded if you aren’t prepared for it–but feeling threatened and being threatened are not the same thing.

So, how do you stop yourself from falling into fight-or-flight racism when your conversation is being recorded? Same thing you do to prepare for any potentially stressful situation: You make a plan.

Immediately after the incident, I made a plan for myself, thinking through how I’d handle being recorded in the future. I based these steps on my research, the experiences and advice I’ve read and heard from Black people, and my conversations with people I admire as good allies. If anything seems off, I hope they’ll call me out. Because of current events, I’ve revisited it, restructured it, and organized it.

This plan is centered on a situation where *you* are involved in a conflict directly–which is different and distinct from intervening if you see a racist conflict and want to step in. There are some great posts regarding how to use your influence as a White lady bystander to protect lives. (See: or for two examples)

1) Prepare yourself by acknowledging that you have some degree of internalized racism or implicit bias–even if you’re a good person. (Want to see how much? Try this: Do some reading and research to understand where Black people are coming from. Learn why the camera isn’t about you personally. The camera is about the pattern of racism in the US and the deaths of Black people at the hands of cops.

2) In the moment when the camera comes out, take a breath and try to ignore it. This is hard. Being filmed without your permission is uncomfortable. I obviously know this. The sensation that the video surfacing could “ruin your life” is terrifying. Try to recall your Step 1 research. Say a few of their names to yourself mentally. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Choose the names whose stories resonate with you. Make it a mantra. If you keep your cool, no one’s life has to be ruined today, no names added to the list.

3) Don’t call the cops, don’t mention the cops, and don’t involve security. Ultimately, verbal altercations aren’t 911-worthy. Most scenarios that cause verbal altercations are probably not 911-worthy, either.

4) If you can, listen. There’s a reason this Black person felt unsafe and began filming. They might be speaking calmly. They might be angry. Frankly, they don’t have to be any kind of way. I know that sounds unfair because I’m expecting you to be calm and listen. You’re going into this prepared, and you’re trying to de-escalate the situation.

5) If they need you to leave for their safety, or if you feel unsafe, excuse yourself and walk away. Something has made them feel unsafe enough to start recording. If they start walking away, let them go. If your adrenaline is pumping too hard and you’re afraid you’re going to do something you will regret, choose flight over fight. Phone or text a friend to come pick you up. Go into a public restroom. Pull out your maps app and locate somewhere that feels safe and secure for you. Get somewhere safe to cool down.

6) Or, if you can’t walk away, address the person–not the camera, and definitely not an I’m-not-racist-but defense. Give this person the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re calling you out. Center yourself on the issue at hand. If you’re not sure what’s going on, ask for clarification. If you think they’re at fault (or you initiated the conversation because they appeared to be at fault), accept that your impact overrides your intent and apologize. If this individual is a coworker or associate, you can make a personal record of your experience and come back to it later with cooler heads. If it’s a stranger, the apology hurts no one and may provide some reassurance for a stranger in pain.

7) Take time to reflect with friends you can trust to be bold and call you out if you were in the wrong. Also remember, if you aren’t sure what happened, there are all kinds of great websites that might answer your questions (many written by Black people who are telling us what they want!) without you having to emotionally burden Black people in your life to do the work for you. (See also: Your Black friends are going through things. Give them space to mourn while you do your own work, be grateful to the Black friends who are willing to share, and be understanding if they aren’t in a place to help you. Your reflection and your research should be something you keep privately or share only with a small group of friends. This is about improving yourself, which is a process of constant growth.

That’s the plan. You keep your head. No one dies. No one accidentally unleashes racist instincts. No one’s life is ruined.

Granted, there are so many difficult and tricky layers to this fear of confrontation, especially for a woman. Especially at night or in secluded areas, we also feel unsafe for good reason. We’re told to ignore our gut instincts that tell us we’re in danger and to be polite instead of being safe. Fears for our own safety make this an incredibly difficult juggling act.

There’s a lot to unpack, but we can recognize the fear and self-defense that the camera signifies.

It’s a shield, not a threat.

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