What Ferguson Taught Me About My Social Network

by Neisha Washington

I know I’m not the only one who went through social network purge following the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for Mike Brown’s death. My social network was flooded with all types of disturbing content posted by people who had at some point offered me a kind word, smile, good humor, and friendship. There were those white and non-black friends who had stuck by me through childhood and teenage years—whom I thought had witnessed the covert and often explicit racial discrimination I experienced—posting their support for Darren Wilson, calling the rioters “animals”, and utilizing patronizing language about how far America has traversed racially. Then there were the “New Blacks” (the “post-racial” kin of Pharrell Williams, Don Lemon, and Charles Barkley) out in full force with their respectability politics. And then, there were others making sweeping generalizations by telling young black men to pull up their pants, focus on “black-on-black crime,” fix the black community, and stop blaming the white man for all their problems.

In the ensuing firestorm in response to #NoIndictment and the barrage of statements about the validity of Mike Brown’s victimhood/matyrdom—coated heavily in respectability politics, as well as racist and classist notions of humanity—I realized how one’s view on the events in Ferguson speak to a larger understanding of the value of a human life in general. Not only was Mike Brown’s right to due process (and live) being debated, but the conversation extended to the existence of black and brown bodies and how they are policed both literally and metaphorically.

My “friends” have touted the notion that the U.S. system is flawed, but black folk must be grateful for progress and patient for change, all the while forgetting the price of institutional inequality is meted out on non-white bodies. The rage that activists, scholars, and everyday people feel is rooted in the understanding that the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice—as well as black women and black queer/trans folk—stem from a systematic justification of violence against them.

Policing black neighborhoods and black bodies is rooted in the same understandings of black subhumanity tracing back centuries: For some reason, black folks are just “wild and violent,” and must adhere to middle class white notions of behavior to be of value. This is easier for people to process and accept, rather than seeking sociological answers for the phenomena of income inequality, disproportionate violence, and high incarceration rates. George Zimmerman was afraid of Trayvon because he wearing a hoodie. Darren Wilson was terrified of Mike Brown’s “demon face”. Instead of being seen as inherently human, these black men and others have to prove their humanity by wearing certain clothes, speaking “properly”, and turning the other cheek in the face of institutional violence.

I now know why I was so angry growing up. It is because I lived with people who thought they loved me but held secret notions about my sub-humanity. In response to my former friends: You can't love me and excuse my skin to feel better about your prejudice. You can't love me and call people who look like me "animals". You can't love me and not understand the basic right of a person to be alive, regardless of whether they fit into your racialized and classist ideas of human value and worth. You cannot love another human being and think everyone who looks like them possesses an innate wildness or criminality. You cannot dismiss the right to due process and life for the alleged theft of cigarillos and a “thuggish” appearance. Mike Brown didn't deserve to die. Period. The value of one's life does not depend on your perception of a person's inherent worth. It's that simple.

And to the “New Blacks” who tout respectability and post-racial discourse as the answer: Respectability won’t save you. Buying into the very system built on your dehumanization will only protect you for a short while. Your protection ends the moment you switch from a business suit to a hoodie. It stops the moment you forget to code switch, and your verbiage reveals a culture, class, or background marking you as “other.” It falls short the moment you dip into the wrong socioeconomic bracket or transgress social boundaries reserved only for those unaffected by stigma. In the end, no one is winning by glossing over the systemic issues at play in Ferguson.

And if you feel comfortable ignoring what’s happening, then you are no friend of mine anyway.

Neisha Washington is a graduate of DePauw University and is currently a graduate student at American University School of International Service.

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