White Privilege, Social Media, & Me

Let me start by saying I’ve been debating on even posting this. It is very much raw thoughts and reflections I have had on the racial tensions in the United States over the past month in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Because it’s a hot-button issue, anything that I or anyone else says is usually taken the wrong way by someone. And, because I’m Minnesotan, I hate ruffling feathers. However, I’ve decided to put it out there. I simply ask that you read with an open mind. Listen to my heart here.

I am unable to find where this diagram came from originally but it describes where I sit fairly accurately.

On Memorial Day 2020, George Floyd was killed. Suddenly, the COVID catchphrases of “we’re all in this together,” “social distancing,” and “flattening the curve” were replaced with “black lives matter,” “white privilege,” “take a knee,” “racial profiling,” and “police brutality.”

In case you have no idea what happened to George Floyd, here’s the abstract: The Minneapolis police were called to a business on an attempted forgery. When they arrived, they saw George Floyd sitting in a car nearby and discovered he was the man they were looking for as he had a counterfeit $20 bill in his possession. In the process of arresting him, two cops held him down while a third knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over 7 minutes, claiming he was resisting arrest. A fourth officer stood and watched the incident, keeping the gathering crowd from getting too close. Mr. Floyd was heard saying several times that he was not resisting and could not breathe. Several bystanders witnessed the whole thing and indicated he was not resisting. Security camera footage from a nearby business showed he was not resisting. One of the bystanders recorded it on a mobile phone and posted the video to social media. This set off a wave of protests in the Downtown Minneapolis community that resulted in rioting, looting, and the burning of many businesses and vehicles over several days. The National Guard and military were called in to get things under control.

The death of George Floyd due to police brutality isn’t the first and, sadly, won’t be the last. Incidents like this one have been occurring since settlers put feet on American soil. For me, this one was a bigger deal simply because it hit geographically close to home—roughly 30 miles from where I live. It has weighed very heavily on me and resulted in me acknowledging some truths I’d rather ignore.

To be perfectly honest, for a person who grew up in rural America, in a basically exclusively white community, and has lived in predominantly white communities since, I have no understanding of racial relations. When almost all the people you encounter in your normal day-to-day living are the same race as you, and that race is white, you really never think about race. Because I grew up never having to think about race, when I encounter people of different races it never really crosses my mind that a) they are of a different race, and b) that their experiences in life may be impacted by their race. I just assume they are like me since we’re shopping at the same Target. I’ve always kind of thought this attitude, that I didn’t really notice race, was a good thing. It meant I wasn’t racist. It meant I was seeing all people as humans. After all, that was an anthem in the 1990s of my college years—be “colorblind” as the EnVogue tune “Free Your Mind” encouraged. It meant that I wasn’t part of the problem. Or so I thought.

I read an article a couple of years ago by a person of color that mentioned being “colorblind” wasn’t a good way to deal with racial disparity and thought, “We just can’t win. If white people bring the topic of race up, we’re considered racist. If we are ‘colorblind,’ we’re insensitive. What are we supposed to do?” I was frustrated.

Taking the “colorblind” route does mean I’m not racist in the traditional sense of the term; I don’t allow the color of your skin determine if I like you or how I treat you. However, it does mean that I’m racially ignorant or, to use some of my expensive but largely useless sociology degree, ethnocentric, and that is not good. Because I have always lived in areas with low crime rates, low non-white populations, and many times non-existent police forces, I don’t see the few non-white neighbors I do have being treated unjustly because of their skin color. And, like most people, I tend to think if I don’t see it happening it must not be happening. From my perspective, “playing the race card” just seemed to be a way to try to gain attention, receive special treatment, or play the victim.

What my reflection on George Floyd’s death did was hit me with the stark reality that I have been guilty of assuming all people are living experiences similar to mine. I think most of us in middle-class and affluent America are guilty of this and not just in terms of race. Everything we see is geared towards us. We have the disposable income to afford the gadgets in ads and the free time to have the hobbies pictured on Pinterest. There is no reason for us to not be ethnocentric because we live in a bubble that largely shields us from the parts of society we don’t want to think about. Being racially ignorant is part of the problem. What the solution is is another matter.

After thinking about all of this stuff for weeks now, I am finding myself with a very heavy heart. This is 2020–more than 150 years after the conclusion of the Civil War and 50-ish years after the Civil Rights movement. It seems like we should be a lot further along in the process of racial equality by now. I suspect some of the reason why we’re not is that racial equality isn’t really a legislative or legal issue but a heart one. And, in our American way of trying to find quick solutions for problems, we have failed to address the heart issue and have opted for just passing laws. Anti-discrimination laws don’t end the use of skin color or race as factors but just twist that use to be acceptable. They still draw attention to it and, by making it illegal to refuse employment or services based on someone’s race, they cause things to swing the other way where a minority’s race makes them favored for fear of breaking the law. To put that sociology degree to use again, it is known as reverse discrimination. It is just as much using race as a criterion where it shouldn’t be, only it is acceptable because it favors non-whites. It breeds a low-level resentment that continues to allow true racists to feel vindicated in their attitudes and perpetuate them to future generations. Legislation does not work; it covers up the problem and allows us to turn a blind eye to it. If it did work, we wouldn’t still be having these problems.

Education about racial disparity is good, but ultimately heart change doesn’t come through education but through relationships. Relationships can’t be forced or legislated. Relationships take time, patience, and work on both sides. It is hard to accept that we will likely not see huge strides in racial equality in our own lifetimes because of this. We want it fixed, and we want it fixed now. But the quick solutions aren’t going to bring true or lasting change. It’s discouraging and somewhat hopeless. Culture-wide change will take much prayer and individual change. Prayer, while always appropriate and very powerful, cannot be the only weapon here. We must start by changing ourselves. Perhaps Michael Jackson said it best in his song, “Man in the Mirror.” “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” From here on out, I have to be vigilant about listening to the experiences of others so I can try to understand their world and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

And this is where I’m going to say some stuff that will really get folks riled up and will likely be misunderstood as me not caring that people of color often face difficulties because of their skin color, but here it goes. Even after the above realization of my own failure to recognize the reality of white privilege, I still wonder, is it possible that police officers like those in the George Floyd case are sometimes simply abusing their power, period? Could it be that some of these incidents have nothing to do with skin color or ethnicity but are just because some people will abuse whoever is in a position of weakness? Given that half of the officers involved in this particular incident where minorities themselves it does seem somewhat presumptuous to assume that George Floyd was brutalized solely because of his skin color. And, as of this writing, I have not heard that there is any evidence from witnesses or body cameras that indicates his race was a factor. Again, I’m not saying racial tensions and abuse don’t exist, but labeling every bad thing done between two people with different skin colors as being racially motivated is doing more harm than good. It is polarizing us and further widening a gap that is not good for humanity. Yes, when it’s a hate crime, call it a hate crime. However, don’t assume it’s a hate crime automatically.

Don’t misunderstand me. No one should be treated the way George Floyd was, especially if it was the result of his skin color. And sadly, it took his death to reveal to me an understanding of my own ethnocentricity. But in it, and the resulting media fallout, I also see a big problem, that of championing Us vs. Them by the “news” media of this country. There is an undertone that you have to be at one extreme or the other about almost everything—Republican vs. Democrat, white vs. black, Black Lives Matter vs. law enforcement, man vs. woman, believer vs. unbeliever, citizen vs. immigrant, masks vs. no masks to slow COVID spread. This has got to stop or we’re going to end up in a very bad place if we aren’t already there. And, social media is a HUGE part of the problem. Almost everything shared on it is fake. I mean, you do realize that almost nothing that appears to look like a screenshot of a post or text from someone’s phone is actually real, or “organic” in social media speak, right? It is all created to “go viral.” The goal is to get it shared as many times as possible to take potshots at those who don’t agree with you. And those “news” videos with “experts” are just as fake. Yes, they may be from an actual news source, but it all has a slant. Just because the slant agrees with your opinion on the matter doesn’t mean it is the “real” news. It is so easy to tear each other down when we don’t have to look each other in the eye, see others as humans, and have actual conversations about things we disagree on. It feels so much better in the moment to hide behind a screen armed with “news” that appears to give legitimacy to our opinion, but the long-term effects of such behavior are going to destroy us. I have seen friends and relatives very publicly roast each other on social media over mask-wearing, each side posting fake news to back up their claim, ruining relationships.

I would encourage everyone to ask themselves the following questions that I have been asking myself. Take them to God in prayer and let Him shine the light of truth on your answers. Because the human mind and heart are very deceitful, it is easy to fool yourself that your answers are honest and your behavior is right. Be willing to hear the truth about your own part in all of this so we can all become part of the solution.

  • Am I assuming that my experience is the same as that of others? Have I been ethnocentric, assumed everyone has the same socioeconomic status as me, or think everyone shares my worldview?
  • Have I made an effort to actually talk in-person to those who don’t share my views to try to understand where they are coming from, even if I think they are wrong or don’t share their opinions, beliefs, or ideals? Have I done so or can I do so without trying to change their mind or prove I’m right?
  • Am I believing things I see on social media without verifying their authenticity? Do I think they are true just because they agree with what I already believe? Just to put that sociology degree to use again, this is known as confirmation bias.
  • Am I sharing and posting things just to be “right” or prove others are “wrong”?
  • Are the comments I am making being made in love or are they being used to tear others down, prove I am “right”, or be snarky?
  • Would I say in person, if I had to look them in the eye, the things I am posting or commenting?
  • Is this a foolish and stupid argument? Many things on social media are. Often, people don’t want to discuss, they want to argue. Arguing for the sake of argument or just to be “right” is a foolish and stupid reason to argue.
  • How am I acting in ways that are being part of the solution? Things like buying food for a food shelf, offering to mow a neighbor’s lawn, picking up litter in the park, or volunteering are actions that are going to build the relationships that will help solve things. Change involves action. People’s hearts and minds are not changed by seeing some meme on Facebook. They are changed by seeing people’s actions done in love and having honest discussions in love. “Yelling” (in the form of memes, snarky comments, and fake news shares) at others on social media is not acting but arguing.

Make no mistake, I am not claiming I am perfect on these points. I’m not even close. There are times I just want to prove I’m right. I can get sucked into foolish and stupid arguments in a heartbeat. Like most people, I tend to be a lot of talk and very little action. However, I have taken an honest look at what these questions mean in my life; the answers aren’t pretty. But, I refuse to remain part of the problem.

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