I took a cell phone and accidentally made myself famous. I was just talking about the things that I cared about, but with the click of a button and an incendiary viral video I propelled myself into overnight stardom. When I say overnight, I mean I literally woke up the next morning with so many notifications on my phone, I thought I slept through a national tragedy.
It was the craziest thing, guys, but when it came to my influence and my exposure, I literally took a quantum leap. So I made more videos and the subject matter of my videos was often the most divisive subject in American life, but it was the way that I articulated race that made me somewhat of a digital lightning rod. See, being a survivor myself of police brutality and having lost a childhood friend, Alonzo Ashley, at the hands of the police, I had a little something to say about the topic. You see, this was at the height of the Black Lives Matter furor and people seemed to be turning to me to articulate their viewpoints, and honestly, it was sort of overwhelming.
You see, the internet has this interesting quality. In one way, it totally brought the world together, and I remember being a kid and all of this utopian propaganda was being dumped on us about how the World Wide Web was going to span the reaches of people across the globe. But as it turns out, people are people. And this magical superhighway also took the demons of our nature and gave them Ferraris.
You see, technology, y'all, is a lot like money. It just brings out what's already inside you and amplifies it. And so I soon became familiar with the phenomenon of the internet troll. These guys seem to live beneath the bridges of said superhighway. And they also missed the memo about the enlightenment of the internet age. I remember being called highly colorful racial slurs by those who use the anonymity of the internet as a Klan hood. And some of them were pretty creative, actually, but others were pretty wounding, especially navigating the post-traumatic world of a police brutality survivor in the height of Black Lives Matter, with all of these people being killed on my timeline. To these trolls, I wasn't a human. I was an idea, an object, a caricature. Did I mention that this race stuff can be kind of divisive? You see, I'm an innately curious person and as I drew my sword to engage in epic battles in the comment section—I also began to notice that a few of my trolls actually had brains, which made me even more curious and what to understand them even further. And although these supposed morons engaged in what appeared to be original thought, I said to myself, "Um, these guys are highly misinformed, at least according to my knowledge." Where are these guys getting these arguments from? Like, was there some kind of alternative universe with alternative facts?
Was history and gravity optional over there? I don't know. But I needed to know. Like, I wanted to know. And as it turns out, I had no idea about digital echo chambers. That same target marketing algorithm that feeds you more of the products you like to buy also feeds you more of the news that you like to hear. I had been living in an online universe that just reflected my worldview back to me. So my timeline was pretty liberal. I had no Breitbart or Infowars or Fox News. No, no, I was all MSNBC and The Daily Show, CNN and theGrio, right? Well, these trolls were hopping the dimensional doorway and I needed to figure out how.
So what I decided to do was trick the Facebook algorithm into feeding me more news that I didn't necessarily agree with, and this worked fine for a while, but it wasn't enough, because my online footprint already established the patterns that I like to hear. So with the anonymity of the internet, I went undercover.
I set up this ghost profile and went crazy. Now, on a practical level, it was very simple, but on an emotional level, it was kind of daunting, especially with the racist vitriol that I had experienced. But what I didn't realize is that my trolls were inoculating me, thickening my skin, making me immune to viewpoints that I didn't necessarily agree with, and so I didn't react to the same things as I would have several months prior. All right? So I pressed on.
Noticing that this stuff also worked on YouTube, I became Lucius25, white supremacist lurker. And digitally I began to infiltrate the infamous alt-right movement. Now, my doppelganger was Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter character—a sci-fi hero who was once a Confederate soldier. And to think, like, years ago, I would have needed acting training and, like, makeup and a fake ID. Now I could just lurk. And so I started with a little Infowars, went on into some American Renaissance, National Vanguard Alliance, and, you know, I started commenting on videos, talking bad about Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter. I started bemoaning race baiters like Eric Holder and Barack Obama and just mirroring the antiblack sentiments that were thrown at me. And to be honest, it was kind of exhilarating.
Like, I would literally spend days clicking through my new racist profile, goofing off at work in Aryan land. It was something else. And so I then started visiting some of the pages of my former trolls, and a lot of these guys were just regular Joes, a lot of outdoorsmen, hunters, computer nerds, some of them family guys with videos of their families. I mean, for all I know, some of y'all could be in this room right now. Right?
But when I went undercover, I found a lovely plethora of characters, luminaries like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer and David Duke. All of these guys were thought leaders in their own right, but over time, the alt-right movement ended up using their information to fuel their momentum. And I'm going to tell you what else led to the momentum of the alt-right: the left wing's wholesale demonization of everything white and male. If you are a pale-skinned penis-haver, you're in league with Satan.
Now, would you believe, would you believe that some people find that offensive? And so, I mean, listen, the fact is that millennials get a lifetime of diet brand history. I mean, America seems to be hellbent on filling its textbooks with CliffsNotes versions of its dark past. This severely, severely decontextualizes race and the anger associated with it, and that is fertile ground for alt-facts to grow. Add in the wild landscape of the internet and it's easy to sell rebranded "Mein Kampf" ideas to a generation who has been failed by public schools.
A lot of these ideas, easily debunked. Alt-facts have that quality. However, one theme kept screaming at me through the subtext of those arguments, and that was, why should I be hated for who I cannot help but be? Now, as a black man in America, that resonated with me. I have spent so much time defending myself against attempts to demonize me and make me apologize for who I am, trying to portray me as something that I'm not, some kind of thug or gangster, a menace to society. Unexpected compassion. Wow. Now, listen, the historical source of the demonization of black males and white males is highly different, and where you fall on this argument, sadly, tends to be an accident of birth.
Now, you're probably surprised by this perspective, and so was I. Never in a billion years did I think that I could have some kind of compassion for people who hated my guts. Now, mind you, not enough compassion like I want to be friends. I don't have infinite olive branches to extend to people who, like, would not want to see me on this planet. Right? But just enough compassion to understand how they got to where they are. And to be honest, there were a couple of fair points. One of them was how liberals have this wide acceptance for everybody except for those with honestly held conservative viewpoints.
Heaven forbid you love God, this country and mean it. Right?
And another thing that they talked about was this fear that they had of something that they labeled as "white genocide," that diversity would be a force that would wipe them out. Now listen, I know what it is to fear for the fate of your people. Between crack, AIDS, gang violence, mass incarceration, gentrification, police shootings, black people have more than enough reasons to stay up at night. But if nature is into diversity and you are not, you're going to lose that fight, buddy.
You see, nature doesn't care about your race. That's man-made. Nature just cares about healthy organisms, and your precious ethnic features are expendable to that aim. So the moment that you let go of that racist identity and relatch onto humanity, all your problems go away.
I'm going to tell you what race ain't about to die out: the human race. Join the party. The water's great. Until the water gets too hot, but that's another TED Talk.
The point is that to get to this point of understanding, you have to let go of that fear and embrace your curiosity, and sadly, too many people will not take that journey to see the world from the other side. And, I mean, let's be honest, that doesn't just go for progressives, but also to the right wing and conservatives. You know, as fair as some of their points were, they were still trapped in their own echo chambers, recycling old, outdated points of view, never getting a diversity in perspective, not making them well-rounded in their worldview. So they're not hearing certain anti-racist and political voices, voices like Tim Wise and Michelle Alexander, Dr. Joy DeGruy, Boyce Watkins, Tariq Nasheed. All of these voices have the answers to the questions that they want, but unfortunately they will not hear them due to the power of these echo chambers. We have got to break out of these digital divides, because as our technology advances, the consequences of our tribalism become more dangerous.
And this whole experience taught me something: our gadgets ain't going to save us. All these technological devices are only mastery of the universe out there, not the one in here. And so that's all IQ, not EQ. That's a dangerous imbalance. Where do you get the emotional intelligence, the character development, the virtues of patience, forbearance, compassion, you know, the things that make sure that these devices, however advanced, become a blessing and not a curse? Seems to be me that humanity itself needs an upgrade.
That's a big task, understandably, but I don't believe in any kind of unbeatable monster. There was no giant out there without perhaps a simple Achilles heel. And what if I told you that one of the best ways to actually overcome this is to have courageous conversations with difficult people, people who do not see the world the same way that you see the world? Oh yes, folks, conversations may be indeed the key to that upgrade, because remember, language was the first form of virtual reality. It is literally a symbolic representation of the physical world, and through this device, we change the physical world. Keep in mind, conversations stop violence, conversations start countries, they build bridges, and when the chips are down, conversations are the last tools that humans use before they pick up their guns. And I ain't talking about online safe conversations from the security of your laptop. No. I'm talking about in-your-face conversations with real, breathing people. And for me, this looks like running a community forum called Shop Talk Live.
Now, in Shop Talk Live—somebody's been there, right? In Shop Talk Live, we have the conversations that change lives. We meet the community right where they are, and we've done everything from divert gang violence in real time to help find people jobs to mentoring homeless youth. And the reason why we needed to do this is because there was a severe lack of trust in the black community due to the violence of the crack era. And so we ended up taking agency into our own hands, solving our own problems, not waiting for anybody else. And the truth is, from the mayor to the felon, you're going to find them in that barber shop. And so what we did was just organize what was already going on. And so what I started doing was mining these alternative viewpoints from these alternative digital universes, dissecting them, breaking them down into controversial talking points. Then, with my cell phone, I flipped the internet against itself and began to broadcast these live conversations to my online followers. This made them want to leave the safety of their laptops and meet us in person to have real conversations with real people in real life. And we did this. Thank you.
Sometimes I sit back, and I reflect on the paradox of me just trying to solve the problems, us trying to solve the problems in our own communities—we build bridges to so many other communities, from the LGBTQ community to the Arab immigrant community and even sat down with somebody with a Confederate flag on their hat and talked about the things that actually matter.
It is time that we stop trying to hack our way around the human experience. There is no way out of each other. Stop trying to find one.
We have to understand something. Human beings all want the same things and we have to go through each other to get these things. These courageous conversations are the way that these bridges are built. It's time that we start seeing people as people and not simply the ideas that we project onto them or react to. Human beings are not the barriers but the gateways to the very things that we want. This is a collective and conscious evolution.
My journey began with a terribly popular cell phone video and a fallen friend. Your journey begins right about now. Join the renaissance in human connection. It is going to happen with or without you. My suggestion: pick a topic, and start a community dialogue in your neck of the woods. Meet folks back in real life. And I'm going to tell you, when you trick the algorithm of your existence, you will get some diversified experiences. It is time to grow, people. And when we do this, not if, it will be clear that the key to this upgrade was always our inner world, not some device that we create, and the doorways to this experience is now, and will forever be, each other.