Angela Mitchell-Phillips’ predominantly white church had a “come to Jesus” moment on race recently.
Her minister leaned over the pulpit and said something like: As God is my witness, I better not ever hear of anybody in this parish calling another human being an animal.
The congregation turned pin-drop silent. Mitchell-Phillips looked around the pews.
“I bet somebody did it,” she thought. “I bet he saw it on Facebook. And I bet he was pissed.”
The moment points to how raw and tense the issue of race has become in St. Louis, and around the country, since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, leading to volatile days of protests.
It can be hard enough when family members are yelling at one another in front of the television, or are met with stony silence at the dinner table. But it can be even worse when you come across a post or comment on social media that leaves you stunned.
It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation in a limited, public space like social media. The aftermath of Ferguson has generated a rash of friend fallout.
“If you need to start a comment with ‘I’m not racist, but ...’ that’s probably a comment you don’t need to say (or write) out loud,” Mitchell-Phillips wrote on Facebook recently.
Mitchell-Phillips, 43, is an eighth-generation Missourian from the southern part of the state, a region she describes as “very, very conservative.” She now lives in suburban St. Louis, 30 miles from Ferguson.
She’s been watching the news and reaction on social media since the shooting. It’s been heartbreaking. A friend will post a provocative status, and she will read the comments. “It’s like they gave permission for others to say every last nasty, racist thought – stopping just short of the n-word – they have ever wanted to vent,” she said.
There have been more than a handful of friends and acquaintances, people she knows through her children’s activities and schools, who have done this – ones whom she considered good people and trusts to be in her life, around her children.
“Then, I see this person walks around with a heck of a lot of hate in them,” she said.
She’s hidden some people from her feed, tried to comment on a few threads and post her own Facebook statuses as rebuttals, but she’s walking a fine line.
“I don’t want some of these people who interact with my children to turn their hatred on my children because they know I don’t agree with them. I’m trying to defend my own beliefs while trying to protect my (kids) at the same time.”
She’s hardly alone.
The issue of race
A poll released recently by Pew found that black Americans are almost twice as likely as white Americans to say that the shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.”
A white woman in her 30s, who lives in St. Louis and did not want to give her name, had a tense exchange with a sibling over comments made on Facebook since the shooting. She has a very close relationship with her family, and deleted the offensive posts. She called her sibling and said: “I love you unconditionally; however, I can’t condone this. I don’t want people to think of you as a hateful person because that’s not how I see you.”
Her sibling became defensive.
“My feelings are horribly hurt,” the woman said. “A lot of people are scared.” Fear does not lend itself to clear, rational thinking.
The situation in Ferguson has forced race to the forefront for people who normally don’t have to think about it. And social media is not the most nuanced place to have a discussion. It has led people to take sides, to spread misinformation, to surround themselves with people who validate racist thoughts.
Until someone challenges them.
“It forces you to be introspective,” said the woman who called out her sibling. “You have never been profiled, have never been harassed (for your race). Trying to reconcile that with the fact that there are people who have been, that’s a hard thing. It’s hard to be honest with, ‘I have had a privilege that you have not had.’ That is a hard thing.”
At some point, you let it go, realizing you can’t change another person’s personal beliefs, she said. But she had to say her piece.
Teaching after tragedy
Vincent Flewellen, an African-American middle schoolteacher in the St. Louis area, will be teaching a class on Human Diversity and Social Justice at Washington University this semester. Out of tragedy comes such a huge learning opportunity, he said.
It’s a chance for people to speak out when they see hatred in their social media feeds.
“They need to call them out on that,” he said. A starting point may be, ‘I’m not sure you’re intending to sound like a racist, but it’s certainly what I’m hearing,’ ” said Flewellen. He said his white friends have reported seeing a number of “quite racist” comments from acquaintances recently.
“I have friends who have been crying over this, and the fact they have to defriend their friends because they are now showing their true colors,” he said.
People, especially in the heart of Midwest Nice, hate conflict.
“There are some things we are just scared of,” said Mitchell-Phillips, a writer and part-time educator. There are people in her writing classes who are so uncomfortable with conflict, they have trouble even writing about it in a work of fiction.
There is a fear that power and dignity are somehow finite, she said. If someone gets a little more, someone else loses a little. Mitchell-Phillips has been repeating to herself a verse she read long ago: “Rise so we all may rise.”
For now, the things she’s read have changed some relationships.
“The next time I see those people, I won’t see them the same way.”
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.