Young people on social media are thinking really hard about how they’re going to be remembered after they die and which photos would be used to illustrate photos of them should they be gunned down. Why so morbid? Well, late last week, Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by police after a ‘struggle’ – eyewitnesses say he was surrendering. On first reports, there were photos of him in his high-school graduation robes and mortarboard. However, recently a newer photo has emerged and was used by bloggers and certain sites to illustrate the story – it features him in a Nike Air vest, with his fingers in a backwards V, resembling, but in no way conclusive proof of showing, a gang sign.
It wasn’t only that papers, blogs, websites and TV channels were deciding to bias people’s understanding of Michael as a wannabe gangster rather than a scholar, but that image is a highly important issue in his death. There’s heavy speculation that he was shot simply because he was black. And the speculation might be spot on, especially if you look at both the racial profiling involved in stop-and-search quotas by American police and the sad history of black people being shot out of fear; Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin and countless others. Only two months ago, an officer of the California Highway Patrol was caught on camera beating a black woman on the ground with both fists, seemingly just for the sake of it.
Vigils held in St Louis in Michael’s memory have sadly descended into rioting and looting by people frustrated by the police response to the case (for the record: the FBI and St Louis Police Department are investigated and are set to name the police officer who shot Michael today – whoever it is has been dismissed on paid leave.)
But, away from St Louis; all over America and beyond, in fact, young people from black, mixed or ethnic origin, have been wondering how they’d be remembered if they were killed by the police. Using the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag across social media, they’ve been posting two images of themselves; one of them looking presentable for their graduations, as soldiers, or just looking ‘smart’ in suits, and others of them looking like less favourable stereotypes:
And it does get you to thinking, how would the press like to remember us when we’re gone? Doubtless if we died of an alcohol or drug-related death they’d find that photo of us necking Jägerbombs with our mates, or if we were to die, say, in a bicycle accident, they’d use an image of us grinning innocently next to our bikes, pre-crash. Perhaps, if we’ve ever put a semi-nude image out there, that might be exploited to help shift copies; look at Reeva Steenkamp, her bikini body used as a full-page image on national papers the day after she was shot and killed. Some white people have taken the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag and used it to make jokes about how they’d be remembered, posting images of themselves posing with manginas or under sandcastles. Others have even seriously posted images of their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides.
However, though there’s much white people can learn from scrolling through #IfTheyGunnedMeDown entries, perhaps that's where the empathy should end. This tweeter summarised it quite well:
Though it’s totally legit to wonder, every now and then, not only how our social media profile affects our job prospects but our posthumous legacy, there’s a bigger lesson to learn from this hashtag. The difference white people need to acknowledge – the privilege they need to check, as it were – is that, however much they might gripe about the fact the images that they put out there might come back to misrepresent them, it is a lot less likely that white people will be killed for the way they look in the first place.
And this isn't just an American bias; in 2011, when Mark Duggan was shot by police for being an 'immediate threat' the image used to illustrate the story was of him looking stony-faced. It later emerged that the image was a shot of him standing by his daughter's grave. His death, just to re-jig your memory, sparked riots and looting across the UK, which lasted for four days. This racism is realer and closer, and it's a great thing that this hashtag has made everyone that more aware of how tangible it is.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.