What is the story behind your profile picture? That avatar is the door to who you are as a person in so many ways. It’s the image you have chosen to represent everything one might need to know about you…or what you want them to know about you. It accompanies every thought, share, or like that are the building blocks to your online persona. Often times this image is carefully crafted, a small point of control we can exercise in our lives.
But what happens when a friend takes that control out of your hands and tags you in a picture that was shot at an upward angle or doesn’t hide your muffin top or shows that O-Town t-shirt you only wear when you’re among your most trusted friends? Devastation. The scramble to untag can be ferocious and daunting. What if people saw it? What if the people whose opinions you care about the most saw those characteristics that send your lips into a gradual frown the more you look into the mirror? Image control is out the window.
Recently, I was honored, blessed, convicted, scared, sad, angry, encouraged, discouraged, inspired by the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book “Between the World and Me.” In the book, Coates pulls his readers into his mind as he contemplates what control a black person in America has over their body. “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”
Coates writes from his experience protecting his body as it is surrounded by the dangers of racism in America in its many forms. When he comments on being afraid for his own body his story is haunting and, even further, when he talks about fearing for the body of his child, it’s terrifying. Many of the situations he described throughout his journey are physical threats, but today the range of racism has almost no bounds.
We saw this recently on the college campus where I serve. The scope of racism extends beyond the body and into the image. The danger isn’t just physical its digital. Think about the image that we all carry from the very beginning. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” All of us, together, male and female, black and white, all the nations, carry the image of God, the image of the creator of all things. That image is powerful. It’s beautiful. It’s unique among creation.
Profile pics have given us some semblance of power over our image. On our campus, however, someone took that image of some of our students and cut deeply into it with words of death. A Snapchat was sent with a racial slur written over it. The victims of those words had no opportunity to filter the lighting, crop out what they didn’t want to show, or perhaps lobby for a reshoot if they blinked. Their image was stolen and marred for what I am guessing was supposed to be a harmless joke.
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts…” If you can’t quite understand the damage, Proverbs 12 puts it into perspective. The blade of rash words is swift and severe. It only tears down, it fogs the image. In an act of fleeting communication that was supposed to disappear within the 10 second limit of a Snap, a group of Americans, college students, lost control over their image.
Still don’t understand why this incident was so harmful? After all, it was an innocent joke that was only for the eyes of the sender’s closest friends. Imagine someone changed your profile pic to the worst picture anyone ever took of you. We can see the hairs you usually wax off. We can see the dark circles under your eyes. We can see those rolls that you usually hide with vertical stripes. Now add to that equation the weight of centuries of oppression, misunderstanding, and hate.Every vulgar phrase those black students have ever heard in their lives was affirmed with that one that appeared on the Snap. And then it spread like a deadly bacteria going viral in their time lines, news feeds, group chats, and even the local news. The headlines of their minds read that they are less than human. That split second decision of the sender took their image, the image of God, the image of personhood away from them.
John Perkins once said of the work of racial reconciliation, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.” That is what I want for all of the students on our college campus. For the image of their creator, their personhood, their dignity to be affirmed. So often this work begins by looking closer.
That is what is so beautiful about the work of artist E.J. Brown. Brown took images, images that have been imposed and stereotyped onto his fellow students of color, and reclaimed them. To get the full impact of these images you have to look closer. See the cap and gown the subjects are wearing. Read the degrees spelled out across their chests.
In an instant, an image of a group of black students at our library during finals week was transformed into a deadly sword thrust. The other half of that verse in Proverbs 12 can teach us all about the power our words can have, a lesson I hope the Snap sender will receive through this. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” As much as words have the ability to destruct, they also have the ability to construct, build up.
One of the more inspirational moments in Coates’ story was in describing his pursuit of knowledge, heading to the library everyday to devour up to three books in a session. He is a brilliant mind that was forged in those days and nights at Howard University. It makes me wonder what kind of minds are housed in our library? What kinds of future leaders and innovators are gathering around those books? What I do know is that there is potential in those students, a potential put in them by the image of their creator.