The White, Queer, Feminist Gaze and “When They See Us”

[I write the reflections below as a white person watching a powerfully affecting series. I am not writing this for people of color to help me process my feelings; that is not your job, although you’re certainly welcome to read this. I’m writing mostly for myself but also partly for other white people to read. It is our job to help each other process things like this.]

The Central Park Five/Exonerated Five, and the actors who portrayed them in “When They See Us.” Courtesy of the New York Times at

My book group, the Bridging Cultural Gaps Book Club, finished watching the  fourth episode of When They See Us tonight.

Outstanding and deeply affecting and filled with so much “real” that it’s unsurprisingly disturbing. Each episode left me in stunned silence at the end and/or in tears.

From the first episode, i was engrossed and simultaneously wanted to stop watching. So very hard to see these five boys be railroaded into confessing to a horrible crime that they didn’t commit and to see their ensuing years of pain and suffering. And yet, how dare i even consider looking away? If it was hard to watch, how much harder was it to live? If it was hard to watch as a white person, how much harder is it to watch as someone who is Black or Latinx? If it was hard to watch as a white person assigned female at birth, how much harder is it to watch as a Black or Latino man or the parent of a Black or Latino boy/man?

These men were finally exonerated in 2002 and were awarded a combined total of $41 million (likely before taxes) by the state of New York. But no amount of money can make up for their lost teenage years and early adulthoods. All of the things that they missed – dating, high school, partying with friends, hanging out, technology changes, having “normal” worries about growing up as an African American or Latino boy and into Black/Latino manhood in the US….

And no amount of money can make up for the trauma of being incarcerated. Especially Korey, who was in prison with adults. He was beaten multiple times, with some implications in the film that he was raped. The years he spent in solitary confinement, trying to escape those assaults, with the consequent mental health problems, like hallucinations. There is no justice during or after such a deep injustice, especially when it’s times five.

Also, you want to talk about strength of character and integrity? Korey. What must it have taken for him to repeatedly go before a parole board and refuse to admit to something he didn’t do, even though just saying “yes” would have gotten him out of the hell of his incarcerated life? I cannot even imagine.

The stories in When They See Us are horrible in & of their own right. But part of what increases the horror is that this kind of thing happens repeatedly and all over in the United States. And that just makes it all the worse. The Central Park Five were “lucky” in that they were finally exonerated. How many other people of color, especially Black men, are unjustly incarcerated and will never get out or get exonerated?

(And to highlight the one tiny LGBTQ angle in the series – Korey’s older sibling was a trans woman. I don’t remember her being in the first episode, although there was a flashback to a scene with her and Korey that could well have been shown in the first episode. Regardless, i was so pleased to see that her truth (assuming that was her truth) was shown in this series, even if just for a few fleeting minutes. She was seen.)

I wondered from the first episode what rehearsing and filming this was like for the African American and Latinx actors. Because they are not only actors; they live as Black/Latinx adults and teens in the real world, and this isn’t fiction, nor is it the past. This still goes on today. And they surely knew that. What was it like for them to act out these scenes, to portray someone else’s deep trauma, and to know that something like this could still so easily happen to them – and might have already happened to someone they know and love. I hope there was a therapist on set, perhaps especially for the youth.

And, of course, another aspect of watching this film. I watched it not only as someone who is white but as someone who was assigned female at birth. There are hundreds of years of history there, of Black men being brutalized for raping/assaulting/looking at/whistling at white women. Or for having done none of those things but being accused of doing so anyway, even without a shred of evidence. And those accusations so often ended in death for the African American men involved – and sometimes death for entire households or communities. I’m not saying that anything like that has been done in my name; very few prosecutors would care about my queer self enough to want to reinforce my “honor” in that way. But things like this have been done in the name of people with my same genitals and skin color over and over and over and over again throughout US history. That history is part of my history.

So my watching is not just raced; it is also sexed and gendered. As is my life. As is the life of each of the Central Park Five. As is the life of every other white person and person of color in this country.

I sit here not knowing what else to write after this deeply affecting series. But i still feel too emotionally stunned and wrung-out to just return to my usual Thursday night activities. So i sit and feel and write and feel and write a little more.

Thank you, Ava Duvernay, for your spectacular work, both here and in 13th. And Selma. And for her other films that i haven’t yet seen. Thank you for being such a powerful truth-teller. Thank you for using your art to uncover stories that have not been told – or that haven’t been told in just this way before. We need you. Deeply and desperately.


#KevinRichardson, 14

#RaymondSantana, 14

#AntronMcCray, 15

#YusefSalaam, 15

#KoreyWise, 16