Recently, due to all of the racial conflict in our country, I’ve seen a lot of conversations on social media about the situation. As a black woman, some of what I have seen has been offensive, especially when it comes from people I know and respect. In one particular instance, a pastor of my church participated in a conversation on social media that I felt was insensitive toward people of color. I was enraged, to say the least.
How do I stop myself from getting so worked up over racially insensitive conversations? How do I participate in intelligent conversations without turning them into silly arguments on social media, and how do I deal with my pastor’s comments?
The answers to your questions are so important to get right. Because on so many levels, we have only scratched the surface of what it means to be the first generation of such socially connected humans. Think about that. We have, for the first time in history, unfettered access to all people and all information (settle down, conspiracy theorists, I know we don’t have all the info #Area51). Anyhow, what you’re asking is one of the large questions of this age—which is, to put it succinctly and melodramatically: How will humanity respond to limitless access? It’s an unraveling answer that you now find yourself in the crosshairs of.
Now, we’ve all skimmed endless articles and online lists on the topic of social media etiquette. Additionally, I have spent an obnoxious amount of time kvetching on the RELEVANT Podcast about the mean people who write unkind things about my wittle articles (poor baby Eddie, boo hoo). And in the listicles, as well as my endless podcast whining, I think we’ve missed a larger point: Most of us absolutely know how to behave online—but we’re choosing to ignore what we know.
Jordan, really—truly—do we actually believe that the average person with good intentions couldn’t have a civil, spirited and engaging conversation without hurting someone else? At this point, are we really buying that they thought this Facebook/Tweet/blog comment was just an innocuous little bit of data nobody would care about? Of course we don’t believe that! They know what they’re doing—but they don’t care. Oh yes, I said it. Many people just don’t care about hurting other people, and social media is the perfect medium for them to haphazardly swing the sword of unkindness.
Take your situation, Jordan. Let’s say you and I got into an in-person—not online—debate about race. There may be things we disagree on or, at a minimum, need to better understand about each other. Now, you seem like a very nice person, and I’ve been told I’m a somewhat amiable fella. With that in mind, would you be worried that we couldn’t have a challenging and thoughtful conversation? I certainly wouldn’t worry. Because in the course of the conversation, you would ask clarifying questions of me and try to understand my view—and I’d do the same for you. Maybe we’d get frustrated, but I’m nearly certain that we wouldn’t actually hurt each other. Maybe I’m naive, but I think we’d pull it off.
Now, imagine we were doing that whole conversation on your Facebook wall. Would we all of the sudden just morph into obnoxious weasels because we’re typing our thoughts as opposed to verbalizing them? I don’t think so. I think we would both hold each other in high regard, seek to understand as well as educate, and apologize or clarify when what we typed wasn’t received (rightly or wrongly) in the spirit in which it was intended.
This is how reasonable people behave. And you know this, Jordan, because you got hurt on Facebook by a conversation that, in some circles, is pushing an important debate forward—but in others is just heaping garbage on the pain. There’s just no reasonable excuse at this point for blaming the medium for the hurt. The people are the ones not caring, and they know better.
Which brings us full-circle to your questions:
You asked, “How do I stop myself from getting so worked up over racially insensitive conversations?” And to that I reply: Don’t you ever stop getting worked up about this! This conversation matters. Your voice in it matters, and real change in this arena will only happen if those who understand teach and challenge those who don’t. I get that Facebook is rough, and we’re going to talk about that in a moment. But to shrivel up because the messenger and medium are misguided would be a grave disservice to a message that can’t be silenced. Keep getting worked up.
How do you “participate in intelligent conversation without turning it into a silly argument on social media?” Initially, I would tell you to just not do that. Just don’t write anything silly or argumentative. Measure every word as if you were standing in front of the person (which in a way, you are), err on the side of clarity—not humor or hurt.
Also, know that tapping out of one Facebook conversation doesn’t mean quitting on the larger issue. Wars are won with both successful and failed battles. Sometimes you just have to quit and let the bully have the last word. There will be other battles. And as a side note, I’d unfriend or unfollow every person who doesn’t have the maturity or civility to engage as adult on social media. They know what they’re doing, and you don’t have to participate. For real, clean house—you’ll feel amazing.
Finally, let’s talk about this pastor. Now, this is where I am going to back out a bit and remind you that I haven’t read the conversation in question, so I’m holding you in unconditional positive regard and assuming the pastor was wrong. However, before you take any real steps towards confronting him or her, I would take an unemotional and brutally honest look at the conversation. Is it possible that your pastor was way off base? Of course. However, is it also possible that some of this misunderstanding may be on you? Possibly. Again, I don’t know. But before you do what I’m about to ask you to do, I need you to return the to scene of the crime and ensure that no new evidence comes to light.
Once you’ve done that, you need to talk to your pastor in person. Because, at least, he or she needs to hear that you’ve been hurt. And, at most, you may get the opportunity to have a productive conversation about race. Either way, your pastor needs you to lean into this moment and remind them that caring for people means having self-control online and loving the congregation despite differing opinions.
Remember this important advice from T-Swift, Jordan: “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” So unfriend the trolls, keep engaging in the broader conversation about race and—for the love of all things good, do not read the comments that are about to follow this article on Facebook. It may get ugly.
Have a question? Good! Send an email to [email protected]. All identifying information will be kept anonymous.
Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.