It is my sincere belief that none of you live beneath rocks, and so it seems safe to assume that all of you are aware of the happenings in Ferguson, MO. Just in case you don’t, the civil unrest (not riots) currently going in this St. Louis suburb is receiving nationwide attention. Said civil unrest began in response to the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Brown was an unarmed Black teenager with no criminal record, and while the exact circumstances of his death are in dispute, much of the Ferguson community (a community which is now almost seventy percent African American) views it as unjust homicide of a young Black man by a police officer. I’m tempted to agree.
People react to tragedies like these in many different ways, wondering how situations like these could have been avoided, asking what will finally bring peace, and often lamenting the loss of young men characterized as “good,” “college-bound,” and “upstanding.” The sentiment that the Black community cannot afford to lose another good young man is understandable, but ultimately falls prey to a dangerous respectability politics—a politics that suggests that the death of a Black person is only significant if that person was a morally upstanding community servant who fits whatever definition of “good” that white people are currently holding us to.
So, my current Web Crush is the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, which attempts to confront this respectability politics head-on. Perhaps you remember one of the two pictures of Trayvon Martin that circulated after his February 2012 death. However, the second image is not the Trayvon Martin who was the victim of the 2012 shooting—it’s another boy entirely. Nevertheless, the whole idea of popularizing the second image was to indict Trayvon Martin by making him appear to be someone chasing the thug or gangsta lifestyles. The notion that this makes him guilty or makes his life worth less is obscene, and probably racist.
Which doesn’t distinguish it from many of the images (like the one at the top of this post) being sent around attempting to making Michael Brown look like a thug, as though this somehow makes his life any less valuable, or made him any less unarmed at the time of his shooting. #iftheygunnedmedown essentially asks “if they gunned me down, what picture of me would they [the media] use?” and is characterized mostly by people of color posting pictures of themselves side by side. One of these pictures might depict them in a suit, or with their graduation cap on, and the other might be of them throwing up a gang sign, or something that characterizes a hip-hop lifestyle. Like this one:
or this one:
or this one:
There are thousands upon thousands of these pictures on Twitter under #iftheygunnedmedown; there’s a Tumblr, and article after article, so there’s more than enough material out there if you really want to wrap your head around it. This hashtag is the next step in a popular critical analysis of how the media portrays African Americans, with thousands of examples all asking the same question. There’s a stigma that comes with what’s called “hashtag activism”, one that suggests that it’s lazy, never effects any real change, and is ultimately useless. I don’t want to make a judgment on whether that’s true in most cases, but when we’re talking about media and social media portrayal, it’s absolutely false. One of the best things we can do here is send up examples of how images of African Americans are used to distort the truth about us, or even worse, force us to be either saints or thugs, and make decisions about the value of our lives.
Returning to the subject of respectability politics, the notion that Black people can either be Bill Cosby or 50 Cent, that we can either be Barack Obama or Lil Wayne, Phylicia Rashad or Nicki Minaj (each of whom is more complex than is usually allowed for, by the way), is stifling to a whole spectrum of diversity and the real lived experiences of Black folks. The idea that clamoring to be respectable in word, dress, and action should also be considered destructive, because it distracts us from organizing as a community and improving our own lot. From Gradient Lair:
Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?” then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save us.
#iftheygunnedmedown is one of many ways to challenge those respectability politics, so that’s why it’s my most recent Web Crush, though even as I write this I wonder if that’s an appropriate moniker for something borne out of something so grave. I’m excited about it, but it’s also striking a deeply personal, very scary note for me as a young Black man. Too many persons of color spend too much time wondering whether an interaction with the police will end in grievous injury or death for us. To quote one Tyler Atkins (pictured above): “This affects me deeply because the stories of Mike Brown, Renish McBride, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and many more could have been me.”