Social media, virtual presence and racial justice

July 11th, 2016

Just a few days ago — and just a few miles from my house — Diamond Reynolds streamed the aftermath of the fatal shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile. They were stopped for an apparent broken taillight, and Philando ends up dead. This death has hit our city hard. It’s hit me and my family hard.

Philando graduated from Central High School in St. Paul, the same school my older daughter graduated from a few years ago, and the same school my younger daughter will graduate from next year. Philando worked at J. J. Hill Montessori, a school just down the road from Central, where many of our friends’ children attend. Philando and his girlfriend and their families are part of the same city that my family and I are a part of.

But despite living, working and running around in the same city, my family’s reality and Philando and Diamond’s reality is not the same. My family and I do all those things as white people, a reality far different from Philando and Diamond’s and all our other neighbors who are not white.

As a white St. Paulite, I do not know what it’s like to live as a black person in this town. But living in a digital age, where a video taken by Diamond Reynolds of her dying boyfriend (and her interactions with the out-of-control police officer who shot and killed Philando) is live-streamed to every device owned by white people like me makes it more possible than in life before digital streaming to imagine what it’s like to live in St. Paul (and Baton Rouge, and the list goes on) if you’re not white.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that because I watched a nauseating video of the last minutes of a black man’s life I now get what it means to be black in America today. I am not saying that watching more videos of people who are different from us will resolve racial injustice in this country. It’s on me and every other white person to work to build relationships across racial and other potential dividing lines in our actual, everyday physical lives, whether that be at work, at the store, or school, or religious community. It’s on me and other whites to push for policy reform and structural changes in our educational and criminal justice systems.

At the same time, I want us to acknowledge the incredibly important role digital technology is playing in bringing the unjust treatment of African-Americans and other people of color into the consciousness of whites in ways that impassioned speeches and well-researched articles of the past have not been able to do. It has been impossible over the past few days for me and other whites to avoid seeing and hearing Diamond Reynolds’ incredible composure in the face of unprovoked violence against the one she called “her best friend in the world.” 24/7 the internet or social media is saturated with images or links to Diamond’s video, to coverage of the protests and vigils around our city in response to Philando’s killing.

While the social media universe can and does at times amplify a politics of hate, our intense, hyperdigital connectivity offers the potential to imagine more robustly what life is like for those who are different than we are. That I can see and hear that Philando was fatally wounded and that Diamond was handcuffed for no legitimate reason puts any white person in a tough position to talk about this as anything other than racial profiling and police brutality. Diamond’s video forces me and other whites to confront a very small slice of what it means to be black today.

As a Christian, I count myself a member of the body of Christ, a body that includes but is not limited to the actual physical church congregation I attend. Since the time of the Apostle Paul, the body of Christ is and always has been a virtual body, providing support to one another whether various members of the body were in close physical proximity or not.

Despite all the ways in which virtual connectivity can amplify negative dimensions of the way we communicate with one another, we must not ignore the ways the body of Christ is also present virtually in times like these.

The laments and prayers on social media for Philando and his family, and now for the slain Dallas police officers and their families, are powerful counter witnesses to the hateful words and actions inherent in the violence of the past several days. Seeing a friend’s post asking for prayers for her (African-American) daughter at the all-day protest for Philando, and another (African-American) friend’s post the morning after the Dallas officers' slayings of Martin Luther King’s proclamation that violence begets more violence and that only love can drive out hate, remind me of the very real vulnerabilities and strengths of the body of Christ I am a part of. A post by a Latino pastor and scholar about the silence of his white friends over the death of Philando challenges me to speak up and into virtual space about the potential for digital technology to help us awaken more fully to racism and ultimately to better be the body of Christ with and for one another — especially the ones who are hurting the most.

A viral video of a senseless act of violence will not on its own spur change in race relations in my hometown and beyond. But it can (and should) be a catalyst for action by those (especially white) who claim to be followers of Jesus. 

Deanna A. Thompson, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and Administrative Head of Religion, History, Modern Languages at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is also author of the forthcoming Abingdon Press book, The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World

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