How the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and Social Media Altered my Understanding of Race and Privilege
When the #BlackLivesMatter movement became known to me, I was in the early years of my high school career. At this stage, as a young white woman in a private Catholic school, I had a narrow vision of the world and the struggles associated with different social situations. While there were students of every race at my high school, I was still ignorant to the issues surrounding those of other races in different socioeconomic classes. Oddly enough, the privileged school I attended was surrounded by a predominantly black, lower income neighborhood in Mid City New Orleans, Louisiana. Yet, despite proximity, I was relatively unaware of the challenges facing those families just outside the gates until the #BlackLivesMatter movement was brought to the forefront of mainstream media and my academic career.
Before I continue, I find it necessary to explain a few terms to understand the concepts and events I will be discussing. The first of these is privilege, more specifically, white privilege. White privilege is the socially imposed advantage experienced by white people over people of color. In simpler terms, white privilege means living life with less scrutiny and with more opportunity to succeed and be taken seriously. On a smaller scale, white privilege indicates a perceived default to whiteness, especially in terms of product availability. Whiteness is “normal” and any other race is categorized as “not white.” Another essential concept to explain is the social construction of race . Often, race is not discussed as an entity of social construction but almost as a biological factor. However, race has no basis in biology, but is instead a product of the imposition of social order from the vantage of the privileged group. Before the #BlackLivesMatter movement became known to me, I had never considered either of these ideas. The mention of my privilege would offend me, and the social construction of race seemed a concept much too complex for me to understand. But once I began to learn more about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, these concepts transformed my understanding of the social injustices experienced by other races.
Since I was a kid, I had always been taught that someone’s skin color should not dictate how you treat them. Therefore, as I grew up, I adopted the notion of colorblindness and applied it to my life. At the time, this concept appeared to be effective, the right thing to do, and the right way to think. And, yes, that would make sense in the context of my experiences thus far. Most of the people I had encountered may have looked different than me, but their lives appeared to be generally the same as mine. Our parents had similar careers, and our families lived in similar houses in similar neighborhoods. It was easy for me to essentially ignore what people looked like and treat them the same as I would treat those who more closely resembled myself. However, what I was not fully aware of until the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and more specifically the Trayvon Martin shooting , was that my colorblind attitude towards race was more harmful than it was beneficial.
Colorblindness can be defined as the notion that people of privilege do not notice the race of another and effectively belittle the complexity of others’ culture and ignore their hand in the social construction of race. Through the concept of colorblindness, those who enjoy privilege, white, middle class and above citizens in America, effectively reduce the struggle and everyday experience of people of color. In my life, colorblindness was an excuse to comfortably perpetuate my ignorance. Colorblindness allowed me to disregard the significant struggles of other races under the defense that I did not see color and that race did not mean anything. Despite good intentions, this thought process is damaging.
I had never experienced racial tension on a large scale until news broke of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Zimmerman trial. I learned most of the information about this tragedy from social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. From news articles shared on Facebook to opinionated Twitter posts, debate over the issue was everywhere in the world of social media. Division among my peers only grew as the trial’s verdict was announced. At first, the uproar and opposition toward the verdict upset me. I could not understand why it was so difficult for people to understand the law and why the social group I belonged to was being disparaged due to one unfortunate event. I felt sorry for the Martin family, but beyond that, I viewed the situation as unique and unfortunate. In my mind, I had reduced the issue to a simple case of law and order. In the months following the shooting and those occurring after, I was vocal on social media about my opinion on the matter. I argued in support of the perpetrators and defended what I thought was the due process of law. I refused to acknowledge my privilege and only observed the situation from my social standing. I continued to wallow in my ignorance, diminishing these experiences to individual circumstance rather than an institutional injustice. As my academic career continued, I had begun to soften my position but not enough to stand on the side of justice and equality. By the time the Michael Brown shooting transpired, I had partially gained a better understanding of the injustices that were occurring, however, my perspective was still narrow and my sympathies restricted.
I did not understand the greater implications associated with this event until after reading posts and tweets from respected, black classmates. I read their heartfelt status updates and scrolled their fearful tweets, and my heart and mind slowly softened toward the issue. I saw the events through their eyes, and I began to understand the feelings behind what was occurring. Eventually, I came across an article on Facebook about white privilege that finally put everything into perspective for me. It was after the tragic shootings in Dallas, a time when many people in my social circles were struggling with balancing support for the movement and condemnation of the those who had inflicted harm on the police officers. The author simply and neutrally explained white privilege in a context I could understand. Given the social climate, the article affected the way I viewed the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Now, when I read my friends’ tweets and witnessed their anger through these platforms, I saw its purpose more clearly and could see the bigger repercussions of the movement and the injustices associated with it. Social media served as an influential and persuasive platform in altering my views concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement and racial injustice awareness. In addition to social media, my experience at Louisiana State University significantly improved my knowledge and compassion toward the daily challenges facing people of color in America. Attending a school with a more diverse student body has opened my mind to many issues that I once chose to ignore.
Looking back on my high school career, I wish I had understood my position of privilege and the nature of social injustice. I regret my involvement in that negativity and ignorance, however, I am appreciative of the opportunities presented to me that allowed me to grow and expand my world view. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by incredibly intelligent and diverse young people who have influenced my outlook on the society in which we live. Through my personal experiences, I have witnessed the power and influence of social media, and its ability to create commonalities among people of entirely different social situations. Furthermore, I have experienced how vital education is to the betterment of our society and for raising awareness and wisdom concerning racial injustice. I hope to shed light on these crucial issues.