An Instagram Story Cannot Absolve You

An Instagram Story Cannot Absolve You

“You’re not Black though, are you? Why are you so upset?” When faced with racism, it’s time to speak up

New York, August 2017: We were watching the Mayweather/McGregor fight and everyone in the Irish bar was rooting for McGregor. It wasn’t until Mayweather won that someone made the type of comment I was most afraid of hearing. “Black piece of shit.” I turned to face him in anger, but he looked back at me without remorse. He added, “If it were up to me, those [n-word]s would still be hanging from trees.”

We argued immediately. He laughed. He knew that what he was saying was offensive, he didn’t care.

“You’re not Black,” he said. “Why do you care?”

A year later, when I was getting my Master’s abroad, someone would say something similar to me.

To my incredulous, “You realize I’m not white, right?” the guy would roll his eyes, look me up and down, and say, “Yeah, but you’re not Black, either.”

As a Latina-Middle Eastern mix, I’ve often found myself in the odd position of being just Brown enough that people hesitate before voicing their prejudiced opinions, but just light-skinned enough that some give it a try. And people are generally shocked when I’m offended, sputtering, “You’re not Black though, are you? Why are you so upset?”

We should all be upset when someone says something racist, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to pick my battles – in the apt words of a close friend, “Society will literally fall apart if we do that.”

And it has, hasn’t it?

“I just can’t believe what that guy said,” I told one of my college friends. “I’ve never met a person who straight-up said they were in favor of lynching,” I told her that it terrified me, and that I could only imagine how it would make a Black person feel.

“I can believe it,” she shrugged. She was white. “People have said stuff like that to me before.” When I looked shocked, she said, “I don’t think you understand how racist my family is.”

Our friendship died out not long after. Her cavalier attitude, and the inaction it implied, disturbed me. She accused me of thinking she was a bad person, and it was hard for me to deny. 

“Is she really the kind of person you want to be friends with?” another friend asked. And the answer soon became no. I couldn’t justify my relationship with someone who was so accepting of the hate around her.

Trump had just won the election the year before, and I’d heard plenty about my friends’ racist families. They said it wasn’t worth arguing with them anymore, and dismissed their parents’ low opinions about Black and Latino people with a wave of the hand. “My mom/dad isn’t a bad person. He/she’s just old fashioned.”

Or, “My mom is racist, but she got mugged by a black guy, so I can’t blame her.” (Note: I, along with many people of color, have been assaulted by a white person, and it has never crossed my mind to hate white people because of it.)

Or, “They say these things in private, but they’d never be racist in real life.”

A reminder: Your private life is real life. What one says in private matters, because despite the greatest of efforts it always tends to show itself in public, often in the most hideous ways.

“Marry me, Gabby,” a former classmate once joked. “I can help you get your Green Card.” He’d also upset one of my African American friends for commenting that her red glasses were “colored glasses for a colored girl.”

Another guy, when I asked if anyone wanted to go to the Puerto Rican Day Parade with me, said, “Do Puerto Ricans even have a culture? What is it – just people blasting Gasolina?”

God, Gab, it was just a joke,” one of the girls said when I brought it up. “He was trying to be funny. He wasn’t being offensive.”

I don’t think I or anyone has the right to speak on behalf of all people of color, but I’m comfortable making the generalization that we don’t appreciate white people telling us what we’re allowed to be offended by. 

It may not seem like it at first glance, but these comments are particularly relevant in this historical moment. The same people who made these jokes, excused others’ racism, or claimed that they could never date/marry/have sex with a Black or Latino or Asian or Arab person, are the same ones denouncing police brutality on social media. The same ones showing up to BLM protests. And although I fully believe that they are disturbed about the unjust killings of Black people, they must realize that their casual racism has contributed to this problem.

All I hear about lately is police reform: Sensitivity training, unconscious bias training, and laws tightening the hiring process. And while I wholeheartedly believe in these measures, I do not believe that they would resolve the real problem: Racism.

Cops – like professionals in any sector – have biases, prejudices, baggage, and expectations. Our families, our friends, the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we go to, and the media we consume all fester in our minds and inform our behavior and the ways we evaluate people. The bottom line is that we live in a world in which racism seeps into daily life, thus prejudice pervades all professions – it’s just especially dangerous among cops, because they carry guns, tear gas, and batons.

Let me be clear: I have no doubt that law enforcement requires reform, but every aspect of our society needs reform. Police brutality is a manifestation of a culture which excuses casual racism in favor of avoiding confrontation and discomfort. So it’s difficult for me to sympathize with those unwilling to confront racist jokes or comments, or to remedy their own behavior. People are getting killed because of the culture this racism fosters, and if allies want people of color to feel safe, they need to realize that speaking up is a responsibility that falls on all of our shoulders, all of the time.

If we want change, we also need to reform popular depictions of people of color in the media. For years, when a violent crime was reported on the news, I prayed that the offender would not be Black or Brown, though it almost always was. This is not by any means because minorities commit more crimes: In The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, sociologist Barry Glassner talks about how mainstream journalistic norms make white people erroneously feel that people of color – particularly Black people – are dangerous. In reality, Black men are statistically more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators.

So when news anchors speak sympathetically about prejudice and the unjust violence committed against people of color, I find them hypocritical. They themselves have played a tremendous role in fostering a racist society, and must now hold themselves accountable and change. Maybe if they had been more mindful to begin with, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others would still be alive. 

It is up to every single one of us to go out in the world and live up to our professed values – I am tired of empty words and social media posts, of people showing up to protests for clout.

None of those things matter if, when faced with actual racism, you laugh or stay quiet. Know that an Instagram story cannot absolve you, and that your complicity makes you the most dangerous weapon of all…Not the hangman, but the rope; not the officer, but the force behind his hard, unforgiving knee.

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