My childhood consisted of a relatively normal upbringing in a middle class neighborhood located in Newport News, Virginia. My parents shared similar ideologies about modern racism that they instilled in me – basically, black good, white bad. My father is a relaxed man who keeps his thoughts on race to himself, but when questioned, he makes it evident that he noticed the store clerk owner watching him. My mother vocalizes her manifesto to anyone who listens, and in the same situation, would exclaim at the top of her voice about the unfair treatment that she received.
Differences in their ideologies didn’t manifest themselves until after the death of their marriage, when we were forced to live with my grandparents for a couple of months. The absence of my father in our lives scared my mother, so she took on the fatherly role – both in providing and teaching. She taught us what she thought we’d need in order to understand the world that would await us as adults. Her beliefs can be summed up in four short words: being black is hard. I listened to her repeated variations of this sentence for years, rolling my eyes harder each time.
Hard for who? I haven’t had any problems. Police don’t look at me any type of way. The store owner staring at me as I browse the candy aisle? I probably shouldn’t have this enormous hoodie on.
My brother and I both took varying approaches to social media. Whereas I substituted developing proper social skills for being able to market myself online in any way I see fit, my brother largely avoided it,unless there was a new meme or fact to share with me or my mother.
It started on Myspace, transferred to Facebook, and finally landed on Twitter, where I planted my online presence. I learned how to tell the same joke a million different ways to gauge laughs. I gained followers, followed comedians, and enjoyed getting to know more about the world. My brother used real life experiences to craft his personality and become a better person as well.
But the day of February 26, 2012 is a day that will live in infamy. Racism existed in America but it was largely avoided on social media, at least where I viewed it. And then George Zimmerman, a white/Hispanic man, gunned down Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, in cold blood. I don’t need to go in to further detail because it’s a story that sprinkled into the eroded cracks of our country and turned us inside out. Everyone, everywhere, regardless of race, knows the story of Trayvon Martin.
For the first time in three years – not saying that it was the first incident of its kind – Twitter exploded with social activism. The retweet feature that I used so aimlessly to popularize funny pictures was used with a purpose: spreading stories of similar racial profiling and educating people about the history of racism , all the way back to slavery. I learned a lot through looking around the website, seeing a new side of people that I followed. They weren’t just a bag of jokes and hormones; they were multifaceted people that cared about a cause.
I didn’t outwardly change, but more so, I sucked everything in. Everyone knows that this wasn’t the first or last incident of its kind. After Trayvon, there was Mike Brown. Eric Garner. Akai Gurley. Tamir Rice. The list goes on. Twitter went into an uproar after each death, and the collective movement grew. I learned more about the Black Lives Matter movement that formed in response to these killings. Stories about police brutality led me to question my upbringing.
Over the years, I became conditioned to the process – death, Twitter outrage, and then reflection. My sense of self warped as I came more into my African American roots; understanding what happens, will happen, and can happen to me. I began to sympathize even more for the people that befell these outcomes.
My brother, on the flip side, remained with a thought process similar to mine was before I began to see activism on social media. He believed each case to be isolated. Of course, he identified as black, but he didn’t think that racism existed as it is depicted in media.
We clashed over coffee a number of times as I tried to explain my evolving world view, but he brushed me off each time.
Looking back on it, I contribute my current way of thinking to the use of social media. Television only shows certain types of news coverage. We learn about the event and anything that the network deems necessary to explain it. Also, as a journalist myself, we’re taught to start with the important details of the story and work from the inside out. When we reach the end, we’re supposed to have details that vaguely matter to the subject. Since news programs run on a timed schedule, there are only so many vague details that can be given. Who’s to say what’s vague? Who’s to say what can be included? Twitter is the face of activism for one reason: you can add as much detail as you want.
Thinking about how much social media can impact the brain is staggering. In the space of a couple of years, I learned more about racial acceptance than in the 17 years I spent being taught it by my parents – no matter which of their ideologies was preached to me. By learning more about the histories of people around me, I was able to sympathize with them in ways that weren’t possible without using social media. It’s amazing how viewing the world through the lens available by social websites such as Twitter create new ways of understanding racial ideologies.