Times have changed for those who voice their opinion to the public. The internet is readily available to everyone and it is waiting for us to post our thoughts—in one hundred and forty characters or less. It’s a privilege to have access to a platform through which we can assert our world views. Regrettably, I haven’t used them in this way. When I am asked what I did in response to this past election and recent social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, I will have to look my grandchildren in the eye and tell them that I did nothing. I said nothing.
I didn’t use my platform at all. Instead, I read articles that leaned towards the left. In all honesty, there was a certain fear of confrontation. The last time I voiced my opinion, which had been in response to the Trayvon Martin’s shooting, I got caught up in a public Facebook feud with friends from a town with people who may or may not be affiliated with the KKK. The debacle ended in people being blocked and several unfriendings. I also discovered from this online conflict that as soon as something is posted, there is no taking it back.
This past February, I posted an article that I wrote about institutionalized racism in the classroom from the perspective of a racial bystander caught in the crossfire. I used my platform as a young writer, for the first time ever, in order to express my frustration with the treatment of race in the American education system.
To my surprise, I received criticism from over a dozen of my peers. To put it succinctly, there were two crowds on the matter. My black friends asked me if I was “too good to be considered black.” Meanwhile, in the other camp, many people told me that I was being too sensitive towards racial discrimination and that I only made note of these microaggressions because I was looking for them. Both schools of thought are fair points of criticism as they scrutinize both diction and perhaps misfired intent. However, even as I accept these responses, I also understand that they both are the result of a confirmation bias that exists in relation to my own identity.
After the posting, I had two options: to step down from my platform and stay silent, as I have been conditioned to do, or attempt to point out why my audience’s conclusions were problematic.
Had I written that I was white, would the latter response to my argument regarding race in the education system still stand? Would someone who identifies as white be as sensitive to these issues? Conversely, if I identify as black, would that dissolve the supposed grey-area of racism in the classroom? Should my racial identity be the point of contention in this debate, instead of the problem at hand? Taking my race out of that article dissolves the context of each claim that was made against me.
Ultimately, bringing my racial identity into debate in response to my article made the piece less about institutionalized discrimination and more about the power struggle that my voice represents. It is important for a group of people to stand together to make a change. But the group should be based upon the values shared by the group and not circumstances of identity.
This is why online platforms can be a double-edged sword. As a minority, I stand vulnerable as a representation of my entire social group. I am West Indian. I am a cisgender male. I am heterosexual. Therefore, anything I say is treated as a representation of any of these facets of my intersectionality because the context of my beliefs are always considered before the beliefs themselves. As everyone can be pigeonholed into being a spokesperson for any and all of their social groups, be it race, religion or gender, the many facets of identity are streamlined into a general opinion for that group.
Gender and race are the first things we see when we are exposed to a person. Therefore, the context of a person’s perspective, meaning their social group or identity, is the first aspect of that individual that we consider. It is easy to use someone’s social identity as a means to justify their values and belittle their stance. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We all do it.
“You won’t vote for Trump because you are black,” I was told once.
“All Republicans are racist pigs,” I hear another say.
“Such a nasty woman,” said a nameless President to his disagreeing opponent.
Despite the power struggle to distinguish one’s voice from the connotative meaning of their identity, there’s also a toxic air online that encourages everyone to be the sole spokesperson for their group. The moment one’s opinion is out there, there is no turning back. An apt metaphor would be that when one steps upon their platform, they must also kick the ladder down. I can still post about the new season of Samurai Jack and joke about how the Sonic Forces theme song seems to fit with just about anything, but the air hasn’t changed. I will forever be a considered a representative of my identities.
The higher the platform you stand on, the more people are looking to knock you off. Normally, I would say that’s okay because learning occurs through discussion. However, that learning is impossible without open dialogue. This is where safe spaces come into play, And no, the Left aren’t the only ones who ask for one. We don’t all need to agree on everything. Safe spaces need to maintain an atmosphere where one is willing to share and hear outside opinions without resorting to name calling and threatening sexual relations with the opposing parties’ mother. Most importantly, the purpose of a safe space is to make sure that neither side is belittled and we accept our own biases. We discuss, we learn, and we evolve.
Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, used his platform as a high profile athlete to make a statement. With his silent protest of kneeling during the National Anthem, even if you stay quiet, as long as you move “out of line” you become a public enemy. The truth is that minority groups are more readily branded as negative representations of their group. This is all part of a narrative used by racial majorities to make protesters look like social deviants, further invalidating their efforts.
Example: confirmation bias is perpetrated even further with outlets quoting Martin Luther King in order to silence black movements. This patronizing narrative of manipulating the words of a dead man is just another way to silence dissenting opinions. And, much like the criticism I noted earlier, this tactic adds nothing to these conversations because they are not effectively engaging with the racial tensions that are the source of these conflicts.
Ultimately, it is a privilege that I am able to share my article on my social media account. Yet, I stand by my values because they are mine and not because of the color of my skin. In no way am I standing against the idea that we must unite against social hurdles, I am arguing for the opposite. Individual thought fuels a collective movement and not the other way around. These groups are not just numbers; they are comprised of people.
I stand with Black Lives Matter because of my sense of justice, not the color of my skin. I don’t want equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community just because I lean Left. There are deeper reasons we stand together. And you know what? I will tell my grandchildren that this past February was the moment that I got off my backside and started acting.
Perhaps, you disagree with everything that I’ve said thus far. If that is the case, I invite you to engage in a discussion with me. Comment. Write to me. Write to your peers. Once you read and listen, I want you to respond, not conflate your ideas to fit the popular narrative of your social group. I hope to accept and address my confirmation biases and learn with the rest of my online community.
If I see you, high up there, standing on an opposing platform and our opinions collide, I want you to close your eyes and truly listen to what I, and those who share my identity, are trying to communicate. My voice is a sound; it has no color.