A few weeks back, I had a conversation with an especially insightful friend of mine that really stuck with me.
“What do Sandra Bland, Rachel Dolezal, and Nicki Minaj’s Twitter fight with Taylor Swift have in common?” he asked me.
“Their stories are insanely shareable.”
I raised an eyebrow, perplexed.
“Like, their stories make for great social media shares,” he clarified.
I stared back at my friend in a state of complete confusion. That’s an interesting thing to say, I thought to myself.
“Their stories are more than shareable,” I argued after composing my thoughts. “Because of their stories, these issues have never been more discussed.”
“True,” he responded. “And they’ve also never been trendier.”
This conversation didn’t fully sink in until a few days later when I saw a girl I knew from high school repost an article on Facebook about Sandra Bland’s unsolved death.
The accompanying caption was unapologetically simple: “Word.”
I thought back to the high school years I shared with this girl, and a peculiar memory floated to the surface. It was of her and her then-boyfriend, loitering in the high school parking lot with their friends. Five or so pick-up trucks had created a makeshift circle around the group, as they talked animatedly with each other before class.
But it wasn’t the barricade of trucks that caught my attention; it was the fact that each and every one of them had a Confederate flag sticker plastered on the tailgate.
And that memory, coupled with her Facebook share, disturbed me.
Now don’t get me wrong. The article that she shared was wonderful. As a writer, I think journalism is one of the best ways to compel people to recognize their own privilege and care about complicated social issues. Historically speaking, journalism encourages people to take action.
But in the social media era, it also gives people an easy way to maintain the façade of political correctness online. After all, there’s nothing easier than reposting or retweeting someone else’s words. And when those thoughts and opinions paint your online persona as culturally aware and social conscious, that’s a win-win.
Albeit a dishonest one.
It’s not uncommon to notice a discernible disconnect between someone’s online persona and his/her personality in real life. I’ve actually come to expect it. People want to share things online that make them appear socially sensitive and engaged. People crave online validation from their peers. Any amount of self-doubt can be remedied by a couple hundred likes and a few shares.
But we aren’t talking about mirror selfies or articles about our favorite gluten-free guacamole. We’re talking about racism. We’re talking about discrimination. We’re talking about deeply-rooted, divisive social issues that have ridden themselves of any semblance of a shelf-life.
And it’s time we start calling each other out on the social media superficiality.
As a young white woman in college, I occupy a subject position that carries along with it a very interesting vantage point. Throughout my day-to-day life, I tend to brush shoulders with individuals who are socially aware and engaged, and also partially blinded by their own innate sense of privilege, (whether they’d like to admit it or not).
I’m not just talking about people whose parents bloat their accounts with weekly allowances. I’m talking about people who parlay the appearance of political correctness online, only to shatter that illusion immediately after they’ve found refuge behind the privacy of closed doors – girls who let the n-word slide off their tongues after a few glasses of wine as if it were a candied forbidden fruit; and boys who hurl racial epithets at one another as if they were bro-terms of endearment.
The fact of the matter is this; there is a mounting stockpile of usable rhetoric online concerning social issues in the United States, but we have to trouble ourselves to do more than just share these articles. We must do more than copy and paste these links onto our Timelines. Atonement via retweet, after all, doesn’t exist.
When we decide to use somebody else’s words instead of adding to the conversation with our own, the more nuanced aspects of these pressing social issues get lost within the chatter.
And that’s a real shame – because we’re the most powerful generation around. It’s time we do more than just play the part.
Photography Via Laura Claypool