NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Over, Down And Around: The Challenge Of ‘Playing’ Real Life

I have been quiet for quite a while. Online at least.

Every once in a while, I like to pull back from posting or commenting on hot-button issues on the Internet just to watch people’s behavior. By doing this, I get a sense of what the most common arguments are, which of them seems to have the most staying power or traction and what kinds of tactics are being used in those arguments that sustain most strongly.

My primary reasons for doing this are the following: First, I hope to learn more about the issue by listening to the people it directly affects; and second, once I’ve gained a thorough knowledge of the issue, I hope to be able to most effectively form my own opinions and arguments on the matters at hand to set clear goals for the future of their engagement.

It’s almost like a game when you approach issues that way: biding time on the field looking for the right moment to make a move.

But lately, there’s been a third reason I’ve been retreating from online interaction lately: I just haven’t felt like playing these days.

The recent shooting of nine people of color in a prominent African-American church left me really struggling with how to go on promoting productive discussion about racism in a country with people who would simplify this complex issue to one of flags, mental illness or gun control.

Then, the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality came out, and I watched Facebook turn into a sea of rainbows, all the while knowing in my head that the battle for equality still wasn’t over. In fact, members of the LGBTQA+ community and predominant churches of color have seen a rise in hate crimes against them in recent weeks.

There’s clearly been plenty to talk about. Plenty to respond to. And yet, as I saw all this unfold, I felt powerless to comment on it. It was like watching someone play soccer with a human skull. These were people’s lives, reduced to memes and cartoons, sound bytes and click bait. Somehow, it just seemed wrong to make a platform out of any of it, to step onto the field and join the game.

But that’s the real rub at the heart of these kinds of issues; situations like this are not meant to make spectacles of, yet our society does it time and time again, and we can’t help ourselves.

Every pundit, hell, every individual, has a unique lens through which they view the world, and that lens colors their perception of these types of events. There’s no way around that. And some of us feel compelled to speak to the truth of our perspectives and how they relate to our larger world as a whole. No way around that either. Nothing in this world ever happens in a bubble.

But if you think about it, I mean really think about it, that kind of sucks. Think of any family member who you’ve lost recently, and consider someone standing at their funeral and using the pulpit as an opportunity not to talk about your loved one but to talk about some sort of larger issue that they felt your love one represented.

For some, if it’s an issue that they feel personally resonates with them or one that would’ve resonated with their loved one, this could be a comfort.

But what if that larger issue being discussed on behalf of the one you love isn’t one that you or they would agree with? What if it is something that you directly oppose, or something that distorts or skirts the core truth of the issue?

I think that’s what I’ve been struggling with most about the events of this past month. It hasn’t just been about the deaths or rulings themselves, it’s been about how the media and others have been talking about them.

Many have chosen to downplay what happened in Charleston, S.C., avoiding words like “terrorism” or “hate.” Those who do use those words are accused of overblowing the situation, or “making it all about race.” Members of the LGBTQA+ community already are facing the effects of downplaying as well: now that marriage equality is a reality, many think the fight is over, that people should “stop complaining about discrimination now.”

Clearly, these are complicated issues. Clearly, these merit action and discussion. But how do you step onto the field and make contact with those playing the game without becoming complicit in the desecration of human lives?

I’m a big believer in the power of amplification. I try to allow those directly affected by a situation to speak for themselves and to serve as a bullhorn for the words and needs of the most disenfranchised of those voices.

So that’s what I’ve been doing lately and what I encourage others around me to do as they read and learn more about the shooting in South Carolina and get to know the struggles of LGBTQA+ America.

Look into eyewitness testimonies of hate crime, specifically the words said by perpetrators. Watch videos of interviews with the families of victims; don’t just read, watch. Participate in live, offline discussions whenever possible. Hear the calls for prayers, peace and compassion. Be an observer of responses from community members in light of tragedy.

Then and only then should you act in a manner that amplifies the voices and needs of those most in need. Let them know they are being heard and that their loved ones will not be forgotten. In that way, you’ve entered the field, but you’ve taken the “ball” out of play. You’ve held it in the air and forced the players to look at it for what it is: a human life impacted by their actions.

There may be those who will still try to insist on playing the game. You grabbing the “ball” in a game of soccer may be seen as an attempt to play keep-away, and when that happens, our sense of ownership may kick in, and we find ourselves inadvertently playing the new game, refusing to give up ground. As I said earlier, sometimes we humans can’t help ourselves.

But there are lots of “balls” on the field. Trying to pick up and hold every single one is an exercise in futility. Instead, pick up what you can, and work alongside others to end the game and take life off the playing field. Stress the urgency of talking through conflict, rather than mindlessly kicking it back and forth.

Read. Think. Listen. Converse. Find common ground, but don’t hide from the uncomfortable truths. Only then do we really stand a chance of being able to bury these issues with the proper respect once and for all.

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