Last week I did something I never do.
I made a comment on a political post on Facebook.
I don’t make these kinds of comments because I don’t believe that anything substantive can be said on Facebook. As a former academic, I’m used to citing sources and taking at least 30 pages to explain my position. A dashed off block paragraph never struck me as adequate to any argument. And every angry back-and-forth exchange in the comments seemed a woeful tangle of lost meaning and nonsense.
But I could not scroll past a three word comment made on a friend’s post. It was tagged #BlackHistoryMonth and she had mentioned one of her black children.
I clicked on the profile picture of the three word commenter and saw the image of a white, blonde woman.
I responded to her comment carefully. I wanted to raise awareness, not ire. That was sometime in the late morning.
By that evening, I had taken part in a conversation that had devolved into an eruption of anger and ignorance.
You might have guessed that the flap was over what everyone else was arguing about last week: Beyoncé’s”Formation.”
Throughout the day, I posted. Several others posted. And as is usual, the conversation took place in front of potentially hundreds of lurkers.
The convo adhered to Facebook conventions—I’m sure you’ve all been witness to this type of thing. My initial comment was characterized as an “attack” by another female stranger. A few people defended me. I explained my position. The blonde stranger, absent for most of the day, popped over in the afternoon and “unpacked” her earlier comment. It is fair to say that her next comments were more dismissive than the earlier three words I had characterized as dismissive. Her responses were filled with passionate opinion, but they were not factually sound. Several black people, including my husband, began responding. The exchange now concerned the cause of racism, among other things. The blonde stranger stated that one cause was black people with “chips on their shoulders.”
If that sounds reasonable to you, trust me. It’s not.
I decided to mount a “peacekeeping mission” and diffuse the situation. But I was faced with a quandary. I wanted to lessen the anxiety and anger of the blonde stranger (and her defenders) so they could be moved toward reason.
But I was confounded as to how to do this while maintaining respect for black people and for their lived experience.
I was working out my response in my head as I got the kids ready for bed. But before I could post it, several more bombs had dropped.
When I read the blonde woman’s latest, I gasped. I rushed a text to my husband: “don’t read the last post in that thread.”
His response: “Too late.”
I jumped back in and typed this to the stranger: “Your latest comment is far more vulgar than anything Beyoncé did.” I don’t find Beyoncé vulgar, but this woman does, and apparently vulgarity itself is a particular affront to her. I hoped my comment would stab. And then, before I pressed, “post,” I stopped.
That comment wasn’t helpful, specific or . . . kind.
Does kindness have a place in these exchanges? Does kindness have a role on Facebook? Should kindness have any function in exchanges involving racism?
I went to my husband. He was down. He had engaged in a nonsense conversation with ignorant strangers, but still, he was hurt.
Earlier that week, in a small rural town where he had business, he had stopped at a crowded diner. He was the only black man there. Like everywhere else in the U.S. the day after the super bowl, the patrons were talking about Beyoncé. Complaining about Beyoncé.
He was served a plate of eggs and bacon swimming in a puddle of dirty, brown grease. Inedible. The white men seated at either side of him at the counter were served clean plates of food. He paid the bill and left.
People of color experience racism in big and small ways all the time. If you balk at that statement and feel that it can’t be true, that it is not true, that racism is over and that it’s a mistake to dwell there, then instead, I must duly beg you: dwell there. Dwell in that truth. People of color experience racism. That experience hurts.
Indeed, to be alive is to experience pain, discomfort and unfairness. That is one side effect of humanity. Think of the worst injustice you ever felt. Was it at the hands of your parent? Some mugger? An unfair boss? A mean girl? Whatever it was, trust me that people of color have experienced or will experience those feelings far more acutely than their white counterparts.
They experience it in ways that are overt, subtle, unpredictable and unrelenting. They experience it through no fault of their own. And they experience it even when trying to avoid it.
Racism cannot be avoided.
This is just one of the many reasons why people of color deserve respect and understanding. And universal kindness.
I went back to the stranger who insulted the man I refer to as my best darling. I asked her to listen because the stakes are the highest stakes in the land. I asked her to scroll past in the future rather than to respond. I asked her to let black people and others enjoy, discuss, relate to and celebrate Beyoncé or anything else related to black history even though she is “not a fan.”
Those were the three words that earlier that morning had cut me to the quick. So simple. So throw away. Not a big deal. And yet, so dismissive to the stakes raised in the original post. Perhaps I myself should have scrolled past. If I had, we would not have known what lurked behind those three words. A catalog of disrespect that included the belief that Beyoncé practices devil worship.
My final comment would probably be frowned upon as far too kind by smarter people than me. The blonde stranger did not respond.
I have long believed that kindness, and its connective respect for human rights, is tied to intelligence, civility, creativity, and everything I respect, admire and aspire to. I think it may be true that kindness will save us all, the world over, but also that kindness might be just the thing to save Facebook.
If that’s true, then we are faced with this question: Does a _______deserve kindness? (My blank is filled with “bigot,” but you may fill your blank in as you wish with the type of person who offends you most.)
Now, I’m asking you to be kind to that person on Facebook–in which case, the greatest kindness may be indifference or silence. Or the greatest kindness may be to point out their error and gently advise them to avoid it in the future.
My advice here is for white people. Since I have not lived the experience of blacks or other minority groups, I would not deign to advise their behavior.
Whites: I know you. And this is my advice:
How should you respond to a Facebook post on #BlackHistoryMonth, Beyoncé, or racism:
Within minutes of my original comment, another white woman, a stranger, accused me of an attack. We battled it out a little and eventually she conceded that some Facebook posts should be marked with an asterisk, “Meaningful Responses Only.” I believe she may have been sarcastic, but I let her know that this was a fantastic idea. It is.
Suggestion for all Facebook users and for the IT people who control it: There should be a button or special indicator—a banner or flag that says “Meaningful Responses Only.” I know trolls will still pipe in. Delete them. I’m talking about a message for your uncle, for that lady from church, for that guy from high school, for the woman you’ve not yet met in person, and for all those acres of “friends of friends.” We will probably still fail at civility, but at least we have tried.
Such a banner will let every friend know that the risks are high on this post. Hearts, darlings, pain and everything that matters to humanity might be at stake. This is a post where we will attempt substance. Comment at your peril.