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Hashtag #Solidarity

Ferguson on the Web

By Jennifer A. Gathright

Black rage is founded on dreaming and draining
Threatening your freedom
To stop your complaining
Poisoning your water
While they say it's raining
Then call you mad
For complaining, complaining

—Ms. Lauryn Hill, Black Rage

“We need to have a national conversation about race.” I’ve read it in op-eds all over the Internet and in print, I’ve heard it from every pundit on MSNBC, and I’ve definitely said it more than a few times myself. But what does this “national conversation” look like? Does it begin with the words of our melanin-deficient Congress? Does it start with President Obama telling blacks to stop looting in Ferguson? Either situation would be problematic.

Logistically, where does it happen? Do we build a table of unprecedented size and unfold it across the middle of our country and add a seat, nametag, and complimentary snackie for every citizen?  Or, more realistically, does it take place in our school curriculums, through a better discussion of Black History, slavery’s legacy, and white privilege? I see neither situation.

I’m not sure how many black bodies it will take for our government to seriously address racial inequities in America. But, while we wait for an officially sanctioned conversation (whatever that even means), there is already a national conversation about race rattling the edges of my Google Chrome browser, giving life to my Twitter and tumbling down my Facebook News Feed.

I see my friends writing eloquent Facebook statuses and deftly handling the comments and posts of those who just don’t get it yet. And then there’s Black Twitter, the incredible place where biting wit and humor fuse with a poetic and emotional discussion about what it means to be black in America. Black Twitter is a place for solidarity, which is easily expressed through hashtags that instantly link one’s tweets to a whole community. It is also a place for comic relief—Black Twitter responded with equal parts humor and disgust to the ridiculousness of Don Lemon’s gas mask-wearing, marijuana-sniffing CNN reporting. And this collection of 140-character musings is so much more than older generations might initially consider it to be. These posts and tweets and hashtags, in their own quirky way, carry on the legacy of profound pieces of culture: the haunting beauty of slave songs, the gorgeous resistance of both jazz and hip-hop, the spirituality of gospel music, and the realness of spoken word. There is an amazing poignancy to hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter because they show once again that, even as America has told blacks that they are somehow less than human, black people have steadily and consistently flaunted the strength and depth of their connection to the human spirit.

I also see a network of white allyship forming in the Internet. Because, even though it is pretty crazy that this is the first time some of my white friends are getting angry enough about race to take it to their Facebook walls, it is most certainly better late then never.

Large quantities of content also end up carrying large quantities of ugliness. A long time ago, my brother told me that if I ever needed a reminder that racism is alive and well in America, I should just look at the comments on any ESPN article. The Internet also carries and broadcasts voices of resistance to change. In the comments sections of op-eds, I see the same combination of white economic insecurity and racism that has occurred throughout this country’s history. I see apathy, disrespect, and flat-out cruelty.

The worry with protest through social media is that people end up using their tweets and posts as a substitute for other forms of activism instead of a supplement to more substantive efforts. This concern is legitimate, but I fear that it distracts us from the positive value of the unprecedented discussions that are happening on Twitter and Facebook. They may feed our preference of sound bytes over larger and more complete sets of information and make face-to-face conversation easier to avoid, but they are also facilitating engagement with the issue of race on an impressive scale.

Baratunde Thurston wrote on his Facebook wall:

"It is the season for gifts and gratitude and so I am grateful for this Public Display of Apathy and Indifference by The State because it triggers the auto-immune response of The People who react with equal parts rage and love. The Systemic Indifference is a feature, not a bug. But here's the thing about systems: they are designed and can be undone, rebooted, re-wired…let us be filled with Rage and Love. For they are both equal and essential antidotes to that which ails us and fails us."

Our response to the Grand Jury’s non-indictment of Darren Wilson has been divided between on-the-ground space and cyberspace. People are both taking to the streets and taking to their Twitter accounts, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether these acts are completely futile or deeply influential. But I’m leaning towards the latter, because they are the expression of national Rage and Love that Baratunde was talking about. And because I know that Michael and Tamir and Trayvon and countless others are dead, and doing nothing is most certainly not an option.

Jennifer A. Gathright 16,  a Crimson editorial writer, is an economic concentrator in Lowell House.

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