By Joe Sheller / Guest Editorial
This Mother’s Day weekend, America had a new super mom to celebrate – a woman whose fame was fueled by a viral video set against the backdrop of urban disorder in Baltimore.
You’ve likely seen her, whether on a TV newscast or a video on your Facebook wall. Toya Graham, a diminutive woman whose yellow top makes her stand out like a daffodil in a coal mine, saw her son on TV, apparently ready to participate in the riots rocking Baltimore. She went ballistic and ran out into the street to find him, her eventual, expletive-laden beat-down of her teenaged son captured on video by a TV station before going viral.
Quickly, a Twitter hashtag was trending: #momoftheyear.
On the one hand, I can buy into that. It is heartwarming to see a mother take her son to task to try to exercise some parental authority.
On the other hand, the popularity of a terrorized mother cursing and slapping her child ought to be a bit disturbing, too. She’s available in the middle of the day to run out and find him because she’s unemployed and poor in a city that has long seen an insidious decline in its economic health.
And then there is how easy it is for me – a white Midwestern man watching only a snippet of her life on social media – to impose my own narrative on the video clip. I see a woman stopping her son from destructive misdeeds.
But her motivations were entirely different. In subsequent interviews, this mom of the year has revealed that she wasn’t so much reacting out of anger at her son, but rather fear; she was terrified that her child could be killed by police.
In other words, her reality, her view of what was going on and what motivated her had little to do with my mediated interpretation or the meaning extracted by the mom-of-the-year hashtaggers.
One of my fellow faculty members at Mount Mercy University – a nonwhite woman –noted that she thinks the video is so popular because it so easily resonates with stereotypes people have. A single black mom. A misbehaving, hoodie-clad black teenager. (By the way, if you want some interesting insight into the Baltimore unrest from the Corridor, her blog post is the best thing I’ve read. See “From Little Rock to Baltimore: Painful Myths Persist” at elaborateunderpinnings.wordpress.com.)
The Baltimore riots and the mom video also offer an interesting case study in how Facebook has evolved. Once primarily a social tool to keep tabs on friends and family, it has morphed into an online village square and marketplace. Facebook still fulfills those relationship functions, but has developed a whole additional layer as a public place to share and comment on media – which is fine, but has a dark side, too.
Even here in the Corridor, a fairly diverse place in a largely homogenous state, I don’t think we understand each other all that well if we only see each other through the prism of social media. I teach at Mount Mercy University, and have been trying to process the Baltimore experience with my students.
It’s tough. They aren’t very active news consumers, so their reactions are too often knee-jerk and ill-informed. To be fair, I don’t think that’s unique to their generation; when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s, news consumption wasn’t exactly a popular pastime among my peers, either.
But today, too many young adults are viewing the world through a very cloudy lens. Their news and information is largely delivered by an unreliable electronic tribe – their network of friends who text, send ephemeral Snapchats, or post amusing YouTube content on a Facebook feed.
They may see snippets of the riots and Internet memes. They experience points of view, but they don’t often encounter real, substantial journalism.
My wish for you is that you stay better informed than that. Then again, you’re reading this, which is a positive sign.
Joe Sheller is associate professor of communication and journalism with Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at email@example.com.