On July 17, I took part in a panel discussion hosted by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in which we discussed racism and mental health. I was brought on to discuss allyship regarding racial injustice, something I don’t consider myself an expert on by any means, though it gave me a chance to look back on my childhood experience with racism and dehumanization — a feeling that was based on fear.
If you weren’t tuned in on Zoom or Facebook Live, I suggest you go back and watch on the NAMI Charlotte Facebook page (also posted at the bottom of this page), if only to take in the beautiful keynote address by local activist and therapist Justin Perry.
I didn’t grow up in a part of Connecticut that one would associate with money, though I didn’t grow up in a part that one would associate with diversity, either. On the rare occasion that I would come across Black people, when we were to drive into Hartford for example, I would become engulfed with fear.
My mom tells a story of a time we walked into Burger King when I was around 6 or 7 years old and I broke into hysterics and refused to eat there because a Black man was waiting in line.
My parents were perplexed, as no one in my household was known to utter racist, hateful or otherwise fearful speech, and yet I was terrified of an entire race of people. How did this happen?
Thanks to the fact that my parents got in front of that and worked to educate me on my misplaced fears — also due in large part to moving to Charlotte and attending schools like J.T. Williams Middle School in the ’90s when CMS was still integrated — I was able to come out of that place of fear and recognize my Black neighbors as just that, neighbors.
The question remained, however, of where that learned behavior came from, and I think I know the answer: the media. As a young boy, I would often sit with my parents and watch the local news, and while my parents perhaps had the life experience to put context behind the constant stream of mugshots and other stories that portrayed Black people in a negative light, I did not, and I believe that had an awful effect on my perspective.
And so that’s what I spoke about during the July 17 panel: why it’s important now as a member of the media to not play into that tendency to criminalize people rather than humanize them, so as not to create a binary between the One and the Other, as it’s described in sociological terms.
Otherness is a theme that is playing out in so many of the stories that are at the forefront of local and national media today. In Uptown Charlotte, a growing encampment of our homeless neighbors faces a doomed future.
At some point, and it seems the time is growing near, the people living there are going to need to clear the property that they’ve occupied since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When they’re eventually forced from that area, many Charlotteans following along from the safety of their own homes will use ideas around mental illness, drug use and criminality in the homeless community to subconsciously label the people living there as Others, allowing them to turn the other cheek without much concern for where those people go next.
As I mentioned in the NAMI discussion, this is why it’s important for journalists to spend time on the ground with the folks who are living the stories they cover, rather than reaching out to elected leaders, law enforcement or nonprofit organizations for statements and taking that to be the whole story. In the end, a huge reason we exist is to humanize humans, as much as that shouldn’t even be a need in the first place.
Now, in the 21st century, a new type of media has brought the Otherness syndrome to a whole new level. The existence of social media and its saturation into nearly every aspect of society has given everyone a place in the conversation, and some of y’all never did deserve a voice to begin with.
The problem with the so-called dialogue on social media is that it doesn’t actually bring anyone together as much as it pits them against each other from the other end of a screen and keyboard.
The same way you’re more likely to yell “Go fuck yourself” at a person driving another car in traffic than you are to yell at them if they cut in front of you in line at the store, the physical barriers between people speaking on social media makes it much harder to get past that Otherness and view the person you’re speaking to as a fellow human rather than just an avatar or screenname.
Recent events in two very different parts of the Charlotte area have only magnified this issue for me. First, the mass shooting that occurred on Beatties Ford Road during Juneteenth celebrations on June 22, which brought out the absolute worst in people on our Facebook page.
By the end of that day, I had turned off all notifications from the Queen City Nerve account and decided to stop even trying to moderate things. Hateful people seemed to be multiplying in the comments section, and I wasn’t even sure to what end they were working to blame victims of a shooting that had nothing to do with them whatsoever.
Then, more recently, we saw a week of unrest in Gastonia that ended with the arrests of dozens of anti-racist protesters. The turmoil still hasn’t completely subsided as I’m writing this. The little bit I saw from the comments on our photo gallery from that week only cemented my stance that Facebook comments are a disgusting place for people who never really got past that Burger King stage I once found myself in, but cultivated that fear through their childhood and into adulthood.
There is no hopeful lesson to come from this social media experience, as I fear the divide will only grow as people continue to hide behind their screens and spew hatred for their fellow human.
My only advice would be to humanize someone you might view as the Other today. Do it again tomorrow. Engage with the people whose shoes you’ve never walked in. I’ll try to do the same as often as possible. After all, it’s my job.