How to Deal With Friends’ Racist Reactions to Ferguson

Race Manners: Michael Brown’s death didn’t cause a divide between you and the people in your social networks. It simply revealed one. Use the information you’re getting to decide which relationships you value. 

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Police officers arrest a demonstrator on Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Dear Race Manners:

I have been so offended and angered by what some of my friends on Facebook have said about Michael Brown and the situation in Ferguson (he was a thug, he deserved it, black people destroy their own communities, blacks are criminals, all the police officers in Ferguson should quit because blacks don’t appreciate them and more). I feel as though I don’t know some of my former classmates. You would be shocked if I gave you the quotes, believe me—so heartless and sometimes flat-out racist.

To be honest, my heart is already heavy for Michael’s family and the Ferguson community and for the way we are seen and treated in this country, so sometimes I don’t have the strength to respond, but I’m both hurt and frustrated, not to mention angry. What to do? —Anonymous

It's no surprise that you're seeing a racial divide in the reactions to what happened in Ferguson, Mo. A poll conducted by Pew showed that blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed."

To be clear—as plenty of people pointed out to me on Twitter when I shared those results—that doesn't mean that only nonwhite people care about Brown's death or are sensitive to the racial dynamics of this week's events in Ferguson, including the treatment of protesters in the predominantly black town by a militarized police force. Americans of all backgrounds are completely horrified—for proof of that, just check the photos from the scene, including the one of the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor getting arrested at a demonstration.

But you're among many who are struggling to make sense of how identity can inform assessments of this ongoing tragedy. One author wrote, "I Don't Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson." My own friends have sent me screenshots of their nonblack friends' commentary, accompanied by outraged emails ("Can you believe he said this?"). Others have voiced frustration about what they say is near-silence on the topic among the diverse users who fill their feeds.

I'm not surprised at all that you're seeing reactions that you deem "heartless and sometimes flat-out racist." Revealed today was an image of Brown's dead body photoshopped to appear as if it were surrounded by food, and the antics of a police officer who shared a photo of another man (who was not actually Brown), accompanied by the sarcastic statement, "I'm sure Michael Brown was innocent and just misunderstood. I'm sure he is a pillar of the Ferguson community." Just a couple of days ago I personally overheard a man saying he was "sick of hearing about that kid who got shot," and asking "Who cares!" (To be fair, he also dismissed Robin Williams' suicide as irrelevant, for racial balance.)

So, what to do? My take, generally, is that Facebook is a terrible place to change minds or worldviews in the midst of developing news events. Everyone's emotional. Everyone's defensive. Nobody keeps the debate on track.

But here's what Facebook comments are good for: revealing data about whether you want your "friends" to be your friends any longer. That is, of course, if you believe, as I do, that the way someone responds to other people's pain and mistreatment—including the systemic mistreatment of entire groups of people—is a perfectly fine way to decide whether he or she is someone you like or want to continue to interact with.

Call me intolerant, but my view is that, if someone's reaction to an unarmed black teenager being killed is to announce that he probably deserved it, that person is not someone I'm interested in being associated with, and I won't miss him or her a bit after I hit "block." There are too many compassionate and smart people in the world for me to waste even a fraction of my social media scrolling time on interactions with people who are either racist or unintelligent and insensitive enough to appear so.

But that's easy for me to say. Thanks to the luck of the draw, I happen to have been surrounded for most of my life by people who are progressive, thoughtful, and/or interested in racial equality and justice. Thus, I've never really had to grapple with the issues surrounding backward-thinking high school friends, openly racist relatives or what I like to call the Paula Deen dilemma.(You know: "She wants to have a party with a slavery theme, and yeah, she thinks it was kind of OK that she used racial slurs, but she seems so sweet and she makes such great cobbler! What to do?")

But even if you're more open to friendly debate and reaching across the racial social media aisle than I am, I'd advise you to hold off. Sure, you could spend half your workday going back and forth in an unmoderated argument that would probably upset you even more. Sure, you could let these people know privately that their views offend or hurt you (predicted response: "You're too sensitive"). You might even get in some really good zingers, as actor Jesse Williams did when he told followers who were upset about his Ferguson tweets, in a now viral response, "Please disabuse yourself of the notion that my purpose on earth is to tuck ignorance in at night."

But here's the thing: Each and every person making comments that rub you the wrong way has access to the entire Internet, live feeds from Ferguson, materials on the entire history of American racism generally and violence against unarmed black men specifically. They are choosing to think the way they do because it works for them and makes them feel good.

So, being a volunteer social worker for social media ignorance really might not be a great use of your energy at this time, especially considering that research has shown how taxing simply consuming this type of disturbing news can be on its own, even when you're not arguing about it.

I would urge you to absolve yourself of any sense of responsibility to take time out of your day to respond to the "He was a thug" crowd. Consider using those keystrokes and that time to do something that's more likely to reap rewards. Can you share what's happening with friends and family who may not be fully tuned in but would be receptive? Can you donate to one of the many efforts to improve life in the near term for Ferguson residents? Can you simply be a witness to what's happening and discuss your reactions on your own page (and then pledge not to engage with the comments)?

Facebook has given us the gift of knowing exactly what's in the heads of people with whom our deepest conversations would previously have been "How have things been? Great, great ... yes, we should really try to do lunch sometime." Sometimes that's great, informative and inspiring. Sometimes it's deeply disappointing and painful. But remember that nothing has actually changed—the technological tool is simply revealing a richer picture of who your friends and classmates have always been.

So, even if you do nothing, when the tear gas settles, the world will have a much clearer view of Ferguson's community, and you'll have a much clearer view of yours.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.

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