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Humanity, Police Violence and Being Black on the Internet

Social media gives black people a way to share their anger and hurt at tragedies that seem to perpetually thrown upon us, even as it also gives strangers a way to attack us.

Photo via Wiki Commons.

Awareness of violence against black bodies by the hands of the civil servants charged with our protection has reached critical mass on the internet. It feels like every few days another black man, woman, or child is replaced by a hashtag. And while it is draining to traverse from anger to sadness to resignation and back on a weekly basis, it's important that I don't completely look away. I can't ignore what's happening to us. And I can't afford to forget that this crisis of violence isn't an abstraction, but something that has real, personal, human costs. These people are not merely symbols or martyrs. The families and friends left behind aren't just subjects of heartbreaking photography. I try to think about them as individuals. I think of Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, Akai Gurley, and Eric Garner.


And I fear for who we might lose next.

News on Twitter is all about speed, and word of these killings and the subsequent protests and reactions is no different thanks to the work of activists like DeRay McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, and many others. Twitter has been invaluable for following these tragedies, but also for following how traditional media regards us and how the state itself tries to shape the narrative of what and who we are.

But it's not just about receiving the news. When you live your life around people for whom news of these events doesn't seem to register—much less resonate—we go online to express our personal and communal grief. And while this is important for black people online in particular, I feel it's important that everyone sees us—that they see how much hurt and anger these tragedies cause us, to dispel the idea that just because we live, we're removed.

And while it may not seem important how "others" see "us," this visibility is crucial. We can talk about racism, we can talk about body cameras, and we can talk about the failures of our justice system—and we should. We can talk about the neglect and political dysfunction that's ignored in our communities until there's something salacious and voyeuristic to look at. But a fundamental problem that endures is that we can't look past blackness and see humanity. We can't look past blackness and see just a person.


And while I believe that "ignorance is the burden of the ignorant," as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, I also believe that the window Twitter provides into the diversity and complexity of black people is an effective teacher. It's easy to generalize, to create a broad understanding or lens through which to view people who are different from us. It's easy to understand the things you've spent time and effort getting to know and stop there. And it's not always easy to access black thought and emotion if you don't have that readily around you in a physical space.

Twitter changes that. If you truly want to know, we're out here. It's nobody's job to educate you, but no one is stopping you from listening.

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Blacks make up about 13 percent of the population in the United States and just 10 percent of the country's internet denizens, yet comprise some 18 percent of Twitter users. This overrepresentation makes Twitter a space where, perhaps, black voices are louder and better heard (if not better understood). It also contrasts with the physical spaces that many white Twitter users live in. Twitter is where you can find something other than the binary representations of middle-class Cosby kid or crack dealer. There are real people behind these accounts living varied lives and experiences, and talking about them in real time. And while it's easy to view or use Twitter as a layer to create separation, you can't help but see how human people are as you watch them grapple with the world we live in.

Still, the visibility provided by online spaces isn't all goodness and light, as we all—even President Obama—know. When we open ourselves up, the exposure produces many negative results. There's the personal cost of making your allegiances and sympathies known. Strangers will attack you. There's the communal cost, such as when people feel emboldened to twist the #BlackLivesMatter movement into #AllLivesMatter, sometimes with ugly real-life results, like at UMass-Amherst recently. Here we have an eerie convergence of what happens to black people in both physical and online spaces: We're either set apart when it's convenient, or swallowed up under the flag of inclusion that flies primarily for those already included.

But the costs are worth paying if it means that the dignity and worth of black people will be more broadly recognized. It'll be worth it when testimony that we are literal monsters is no longer credible and that being less than an "angel" doesn't factor into whether we live or die. And while we just want to be seen as human beings, it's important to note that police officers, prosecutors, judges and jury members are just humans, too. And if they can't recognize the humanity in us that they take for granted in themselves, as they plead for understanding of their fears and their actions when these killings happen, how can they be expected to truly serve and protect us?

Technologies like Twitter have made the world a smaller place, certainly, yet that endeavor shouldn't begin and end with the closing of physical distance, but rather with the extension of humanity and understanding to a wider group of humans.

Follow Andrew on Twitter.