When Showing Up Requires More Than Just a Facebook Post

When we take the time to connect, we make our communities more resilient and compassionate, and maybe we find the courage to defeat racism.
Black Lives Matter

Photo by niXerKG / Flickr.

I had never seen a man die before watching the videos of Alton Sterling, age 37, and Philando Castile, age 32, each shot by police. Afterward, I rattled around the house, grieving and closing in on despair. How many more Black people will die? Are we really unable to change after so many years of racism? Will fear and rage—with the extra push from Donald Trump—win in the end?

Alone with a nonstop stream of violence and brutality, there seemed to be no hope, and, aside from some retweeting, I couldn’t think of what to do.

A few days later, across my Facebook page came a call to stand in support of Black Lives Matter in the nearby city of Silverdale, Washington, a suburb full of chain stores and fast-food restaurants adjacent to a large naval base. It was a new mothers’ support group—mostly White—that put out the call, but attendees were Black, White, Native and all ages, from tiny babies to elderly activists. Strangers started introducing themselves, and small groups began working together on signs with the names of Black people who had been killed by police.

The county sheriff, Gary Simpson, showed up with several deputies. When he saw a group making a sign reading, “White people: What will we do to change our legacy of violence?” he asked permission to add a sheriff’s badge sticker to the sign.

Later, as we stood at the street corner, some passersby yelled and cursed, but most honked or gave a thumbs-up or a clenched fist in approval. As time went on, the group standing with signs relaxed a bit, and there were smiles and conversations. An anonymous street corner became a place to express grief, to feel connection, and, finally, to begin healing.

An anonymous street corner became a place to express grief, to feel connection, and, finally, to begin healing.

Social media does not replace this experience. Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Periscope, and other platforms have made it possible to mobilize quickly and at large scales. But what matters is that we show up in person.

At a recent technology conference, Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, explained why human-to-human contact is important: “What presence does is to create the empathic connection that comes from knowing that a person who has lived a human life is listening with all of themselves, body and mind. … That is how you create an ethical connection.”

That ethical, empathic connection suggests that we might make the greatest inroads on racism in our own communities, among our own families and friends.

We might make the greatest inroads on racism in our own communities, among our own families and friends. 

“You have to bring it home,” Joyce Hobson Johnson, a leader of Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, told me when I visited last year as part of my Edge of Change road trip. Johnson, a member of the North Carolina NAACP State Executive Board, has experienced horrific violence, including a 1979 shooting by the KKK and Nazis—with police complicity—that left five dead.

“To really make a difference, you have to have relationships and build a new culture of possibility—what we call beloved community,” she said. “We’ve met with some of the Klan and Nazis,” Johnson told me. “They too struggle for their livelihoods.

“You respect and honor their dignity and worth, the equality of every person,” she said. “That’s something that is in itself revolutionary.”

In Greensboro, and in other places I visited during my road trip, I saw a pent-up longing to love one another. Lots of barriers get in the way: We get scared or sidetracked by trivia and cat videos. We don’t have time; we’re shy; we’re not sure we measure up. And we have trouble connecting across race, class, gender, and generational lines.

But when we do take the time to connect, we weave a fabric of empathy and support. We make our communities more resilient and more centered on the common good. We may even find the courage to finally defeat racism.