Losing our humanity one click at a time, or What has social media wrought?

The year was 1998 and I had returned to school to work on my undergraduate degree. It was my second year in when I took a research class that required being online. Let me refresh your memory: In 1998, less than half of U.S. households had personal computers, barely a third of Americans had cell phones, and smartphones didn’t exist. Social media as we know it didn’t exist. Livejournal wasn’t even created until 1999. It was still a fairly analog world.

However, I fell in love with the Internet despite the fact that most of the people in my life were utterly confused by my fascination with it.  In a few short years I would become immersed in discussion boards that ranged the gamut from learning how to manage my hair in its natural state to learning about my mother’s cancer and, later, from living with the death of a parent to learning how to parent the second time around.

In my early years in Maine, the Internet allowed me to stay connected with friends and my Blackness. The connections made online in the early 2000s would literally become my life preserver at times; those connections have sustained me through some of the darkest moments of my life. Many of the people I met online in the early days have become lifelong friends and associates.

Given my overall familiarity and comfort with being online, my decision to start blogging in 2008 wasn’t completely out of line.  The decision to blog coinciding with my son’s teen years and the rise of social media with the advent of Facebook being made available to the general public and later the rise of Twitter propelled me into the modern-day world of social media.

Initially, Twitter made no sense to me, after all. Why would I talk to myself? However, after a few readers of my local work discovered me online, Twitter changed the trajectory of my life in many ways. My initial connections were primarily with Maine-based people but it later grew. And, as I realized a few days ago, I have been on Twitter eight years now. I have been on Facebook nine years. I also have a few other social media accounts as well but unlike the old days, my feelings about social media have shifted.

It was bound to happen. After all, we have a president who freely tweets on matters that frankly he knows nothing about and often raves about other things he ought not to be wasting valuable presidential time on. Once upon a time, the idea that the leader of the free world might tweet us into World War Three would seem preposterous but that’s no longer a far-fetched concept. The Internet has always had dark corners but lately it seems like the dark corners have become neighborhoods and entire states.

There is no mistaking the power of the Internet and the potential it holds for good; after all, the world has shrunk to a common space. No longer are we beholden to our local media or the cable channels to tell us what’s going on. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the odds are high that someone near to the situation can share with us right away with a few tweets. With smartphones and cameras being a societal norm, many people who thought overt racism was dead have realized that racism is still very much a problem as we have seen with the many  of the well-publicized cases in recent years.

However, even these tools can be used for evil as seen a few days ago in the tragic death of Robert Godwin Sr., an elderly man in Cleveland, Ohio, walking home from Easter dinner  who was senselessly killed by Stephen Steve, who recorded the killing and uploaded the video to Facebook. In recent months, other violent and horrific acts have been recorded live on Facebook. In almost all of these cases, the videos are viewed and shared countless times before they are finally taken down. We have become psychological rubberneckers feasting on the sorrows of others as a way to mindlessly kill time.

The dark side of the Internet has become personal to me as I have watched an article written online and circulating in racial justice spaces nationally create a great deal of angst for my organization, colleagues, and friends. It most certainly has added to my workload as I have been asked my views on the piece. This isn’t the time or place for my thoughts but as I joked recently, in all my years of running non-profits, I never thought that I would see an article become a point of crisis.

In recent weeks, I have watched people I know ripped apart online by what at times feels like packs of wolves circling the wagon. Just a few nights ago, I found myself being confronted online by someone demanding to know why I would allow space for the Average White Guy to share his thoughts and was referred to as trash for doing so.

The same type of polarization that has crippled this country has infected the Internet too. No longer can we agree to disagree; instead, if we hold opposing views or don’t agree with others, we risk being labeled and disposed of. Increasingly anyone and anything that does not work for us is simply disposed of because with the click of a button, we sic our pack on the offender or we can end our connections sometimes even our familial ties. The ease at which we dispose of people is staggering to me.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am very aware that life and people are far more complex than what we are privy to online. The older I get, the more I realize that there are few absolute truths and that it is possible to hold two opposing truths simultaneously at the same time. Rarely is life truly black and white. Instead much of it is shades of gray. Yet in a world where emails are too much trouble, phone calls are tedious and even a text can feel tiresome to many people, when we rely on these electronic mediums to shape our world and connect, we are risking losing a piece of our own humanity in the process.

I suppose there is a certain rich irony in the fact that a writer whose work grew in prominence due to the Internet is admitting that they have grown to fear the Internet. After all, one misstep can end a career or a relationship and occasionally even a life. I know there is a lot of good work still happening in these digital spaces, especially in activism spaces but for this old-head, increasingly I wonder if I am getting closer to the end of the line. I am just a simple woman, writing simple truths and sharing my musings with the world while grappling with the realities and complexities of life.
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Say It Again: Black Lives Matter in Maine and Everywhere

Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon.  Samara has been a black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.

In July 2017, a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest took place in downtown Portland, Maine during which a confrontation erupted between pedestrians and a man in an automobile. (I’ll let that statement speak for itself). Local media described the incident as if the driver were an innocent victim, harassed by the hostile rabble while attempting to flee conflict. But eyewitnesses and the phone footage which was repeatedly removed from Facebook told a different story. An unconcerned driver glared defiantly at protesters who, in frustration but still calling him “Sir,” attempted to redirect his path around themselves. He pursued his course despite reason, continuing to plow directly into the crowd, eliciting reactive shouts and more insistent demands to change course (including slaps to the vehicle). This did not deter him. Not long after this show of entitled aggression, the driver completing his goal of physically forcing the crowd apart with a moving vehicle, the protest came to an end. Eighteen protesters were arrested and the 17 non-minors were eventually charged with obstructing a public way along with some other misdemeanors. The proceedings led to fines paid by protesters as well as a restorative justice agreement–discussions to take place between Portland police officers and defendants. The sessions did not move forward, however, as the specific terms became strongly contested. This conflict led to a reinstatement of the original charges and the arraignment I briefly attended last Monday.

I couldn’t stay long, because I had other obligations, but I needed to be near the sisters and allies as they entered the courthouse. They had submitted their personhood and reputation to public scrutiny, enduring ridicule, misrepresentation, and disregard for their religious practices in the case of the Muslim women (as pictures of themselves with their hijabs removed were circulated without their consent) to say for all Black men, women, and children: “We are human; we deserve to be treated as humans.” And Monday I had the chance to place my body in the line of the public gaze and in a city courtroom with others to say, “Thank you.” That was it, really. My presence wasn’t an instance of heavy lifting. It was simply a gesture of gratitude and support.

While I was there, several mildly annoying things happened. For one, those gathered for support encountered a verbally hostile, severely misinformed, maddeningly vague, middle-aged white man leaving the courthouse. Punctuating his sentences with expletives, he asked, “Are you kidding me?!” Followed by, “They’re going to bomb us!” I’m still not sure who he thought “they” were. Also, when I went through security to enter the courtroom and had the nerve to ask about what personal items I could take in with me, the security officer (who refused to look me in the eye) ripped the messenger bag out of my hand and ordered me to put my phone inside.

But the most frustrating part of my brief hour downtown took place when Judge Fritzsche took his seat and began explaining what BLM is about (you know, our perception of injustice) and why he thought sitting down and talking things through between the defendants and the Portland PD, creating some kind of mutual understanding and a new, restorative justice plan, was the only way to make things right. Have you ever instinctively known you were being handled rather than addressed; placated rather than heard? That was the mood in the courtroom. The judge insisted on pursuing this restorative justice course, as opposed to moving forward with a trial and giving the defendants the chance they sought to argue their case, ignoring the context of constant silencing, dismissing, and erasure faced by POC [people of color]  which makes “mutual understanding” a joke. With the kind of gross imbalance of power permanently lodged between police officers–those publicly respected, revered, and regarded with the “good faith” in which Judge Fritzsche kept imploring the courtroom to engage–and those of us so often regarded with a complete lack of credibility whenever we bring up any instance of injustice (“us” often meaning Black women), “mutual understanding” usually means those with less power holding our peace so that those with more power feel less threatened by our grievances.

Perhaps most bizarrely, Judge Fritzsche repeatedly referenced the struggle of young Black men; with oblivious condescension, by the way, as though implicit bias and disproportionate violence at the hands of authorities were a matter of opinion rather than a terrifying, reality hanging over the heads of POC in this country everyday. And he pursued this topic of Black men despite the fact that not a single defendant in that courtroom was a Black man. I wasn’t sure how much further he could have removed himself from the personal struggle of the defendants before him while claiming to understand.

That is, until he brought up Chance Baker. That part almost did me in.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Chance Baker, he was a young homeless man who bought a pellet gun in Union Station Plaza this winter and was brandishing his purchase in the plaza parking lot when Portland Police were called. The specifics of what happened at that point differ, depending on who you ask. The police knew the weapon was a BB gun, or they had no idea. Baker was clearly not under the influence of any chemical substance, or he was obviously intoxicated. The pellet gun was in his hands and he refused to set it down, or it was on the ground. It’s hard to find clear answers. Everyone agrees, however, that Chance Baker was shot in the forehead by Sergeant Nicholas Goodman and that this kills shot was the sole shot fired. Also, despite the bizarre assumptions of several mistaken bystanders, Chance Baker was a light-skinned Black man.

I think in his mind, throughout the proceedings, Judge Fritzsche was validating the awareness of injustice looming over BLM supporters in his courtroom. I’m not sure. But when he explained that there was no way to know how much, in the intersection of race, homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse, we could tell which factors had led to Baker’s death, the fire in my bones nearly propelled me out of my seat to shout, “It doesn’t matter!” Because when you, as a POC, learn that a young man desperately in need of help, living in your own small city, has been shot IN THE FOREHEAD by an officer, a human being shot down like a paper target at a local fair, the detectability of his blackness is not the factor dropping the weight of loss like a cannonball into your own gut. It’s the disposability of his entire life. It’s the fact that alternative paths of resolution were never pursued (a non-lethal, disabling shot for instance). It’s the way so many people in the community shake their heads and say, “Oh, well. It’s sad, but it couldn’t have been helped,” when his death clearly could’ve been helped. It’s the lack of accountability. It’s the total, unquestioning acceptance. For whatever combination of reasons (blackness, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness), a human being’s life didn’t matter in that ugly and terrifying equation which played out at Union Station Plaza. That’s the part that stays with you when you live your every moment wrapped inside the stunning and glorious but systematically dehumanized skin of the marginalized.

I left the courtroom and returned to my own daily chaos, later learning that Judge Fritzsche had recused himself from the case. And while I was glad about that for the defendants’ sakes, I also couldn’t help thinking he was letting himself off the hook on a personal level. This could have been an opportunity for Judge Fritzsche to broaden his own understanding, to listen and learn what BLM is really about, specifically here in the city of Portland, Maine, and for the women and men who had come to make their case in his courtroom on Monday. But when someone drives their preconceptions full-speed toward the brick wall of an unimagined reality, something has to give, either the preconceptions themselves or the nerve of the driver and his determination to engage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Judge Fritzsche’s preconceptions survived the day, highlighting the necessity to continue speaking the truth others still don’t know they need to hear: Black lives matter.

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Calling all white people, part 11: Can’t be accountable to everyone

Calling All White People, Part 11

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Accountability is essential…but it isn’t a simple, blanket concept
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

There’s been a lot of talk lately in anti-racism/racial justice circles about accountability. Mostly right now, it seems to be a term attached to white-led, white-focused anti-racism groups (e.g., groups formed to educate, mobilize and support white people in dismantling white supremacy and educating their fellow white people about racial justice and racism) and criticisms that many of these groups are not acting in a way that is accountable to people of color. That is, they are simply centering white people in a new way and/or perpetuating white supremacy by making anti-racism efforts all about white-led movements.

I’m not saying that this isn’t something to be concerned about. It is. We white people have to constantly check our biases and examine our relative privileges vis-a-vis people of color because it’s so easy to slip into bad habits. We’ve been raised to be centered in this American culture because of our whiteness, and so we can make terrible missteps even when we try to do good or are sure that what we’re doing is right and just.

And I’m sure there are white-led groups focused on white people’s part in the anti-racism struggle that miss the mark and are doing more to make themselves feel good and/or try to steer the anti-racism ship with little or no input from people of color. And that is wrong-headed.

But my problem with accountability as the term is being thrown around a lot lately is with the vagueness that surrounds it. Some people have demanded that groups disband for not being accountable, sometimes when those groups are trying to reach out to figure out how they can be more accountable or when they are already engaged in efforts to figure out what they can do to be more accountable.

And in all this, I’ve seen very little specificity being offered by the people demanding that white anti-racism groups shut down as to what accountability looks like.

There are times when lack of accountability (or, more generally, lack of awareness/sensitivity around racial matters) is really, really clear and you will find probably no Black people or other people of color disagreeing with the assessment that the ball has been dropped by white folks unless those people of color have names like Ben Carson or Omarosa Manigault.

The recent furor over the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner is a good example. Although many people shoved to the margins by people who love Trump have reason to be irritated with that commercial, I have to say that Black people were one of the most wronged, given how much risk has been involved with Black Lives Matter protests and similar activist actions around anti-Black racism and how that Pepsi commercial belittled those risks and the dedicated work of the people who endured those risks.

But then there are other times the waters are murkier. Right now, as I’ve already alluded to, there have been a fair amount of very vocal demands that chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)…or perhaps all of them and the national organization as well…should shut down because they are run by white people and overwhelmingly involve white people.

On the one side, you have Black people and other people of color who maintain that white-led anti-racism groups are inherently flawed because white people don’t get it and have traditionally messed things up. Some of the more vocal critics have even gone as far as to say anything led or designed primarily by white people is inherently trash. And so some SURJ chapters do seem to be shutting down under this criticism, with the message going out that white people need to individually educate themselves and their families and communities rather than organizing as a group to share questions, issues and support. Which to me feels like getting a degree via self-directed learning; most people can’t do it.

On the other hand, you have people of color who are all too aware that these groups sometimes mess up or misstep, but are glad to see large numbers of white people acknowledge white privilege and white supremacy and finally start making some kind of concerted effort to address those issues and fix them. They maintain that white supremacy and systemic racism were created by white people (who still hold most of the power and influence) and dismantling that mess without significant white effort would be nigh-impossible.

And there, for many white people who are concerned about racism and want to see racial equity arrive (if not in their lifetime, at least perhaps before we get to the next century), is the rub.

You can’t please everyone.

And to be brutally honest, you can’t be accountable to everyone.

As much as I hate to say this, if you’re in this work to try to cripple racism and other forms of social oppression, you are quite likely going to piss off someone in the group you are trying to support and spare from further bigotry at some point. In fact, with this post, I am likely to piss off a number of people who, for example, are in the adamantly anti-SURJ camp. It’s probably fairly clear in my tone and earlier comments that I don’t quite understand the logic of dissuading white people from having groups that will help educate them about racism (people of color often chafe at always having to educate us); that will provide them with strategies and tools to confront racism and try to chip away at it in their family, social and professional circles; and that will encourage and support them in their efforts as well as (theoretically) provide them with a place to check each other on biases they may still hold (which may indeed include centering whiteness too much and trying to control the anti-racism work too much). Having white people willing to organize in this way and gather in this way also seems appropriate given that a significant number of people of color are uncomfortable with large numbers of white people in their own anti-racism or racial-support gatherings.

As Teddy Burrage noted in a recent post here at BGIM, Black people are not monolithic, nor is any other group. Even when they are working on the same problem or issue and belong to the same marginalized group, people can disagree, sometimes sharply. And I think it’s a shock for many of us white people when we are supporting efforts like anti-racism when we see two Black people, for example, go head-to-head arguing over what is the right way to do something. Or whether, for example, SURJ is a good thing or a bad thing.

But in the end, anti-racism work, like any other complicated and messy work that involves dismantling oppressive systems, is a potential minefield for the people who work in that area. Especially for the people who belong to the group (or multiple groups) associated with dealing out that oppression.

We can’t be accountable to everyone, because everyone doesn’t agree. You certainly can’t be accountable to every individual Black person (or Latinx person, or Muslim person, or anyone else) because different people are going to have vastly different opinions. Different groups, too. You’ve heard the phrase “You can’t please everyone” and the fact is that you can’t.

I mean, you can be “accountable” in the sense that you need to respect and listen to people in marginalized groups and, when they say you’re doing something wrong, actually examine your actions and feelings closely to see if they’re right (and if it’s racism and you’re white and you’ve been told you’re doing something wrong, experience tells me the odds are that you probably did mess up). But you can’t be “accountable” in the sense of following one set of rules, because there isn’t one.

Bottom line: We as white people need to constantly check our privilege. We need to constantly self-diagnose ourselves as to whether or not we’re exhibiting unfair bias. We need to hear criticisms of our actions and attitudes by people in marginalized groups without getting defensive. We need to change what we do, say and think when it’s clear we’re hurting a group or a good cause. At the same time, we need to resist the urge to respond to the loudest, angriest voices all the time, because they aren’t always the right voices or even the majority opinion.

Unless and until there is a monolithic rulebook for every marginalized group (and there won’t ever be; I can promise that), you need to realize that in being accountable to one set of voices, you will almost certainly run afoul of another set of voices…and all of them trying to do the same work for, largely, the same fundamental outcome: freedom and equity.

That sucks. That makes the work harder. But fighting oppression is a fight; make no mistake. You’re going to get bruises, and they won’t all be from the enemy.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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