Ashley Speaks: I Don't Want My Brother to be a Hashtag

by Ashley Johnson

For the past few weeks, I have been helping my parents and fourteen-year-old brother get ready to move from their small town in New Jersey to Charlotte, North Carolina.  As we packed up fourteen years' worth of memories into cardboard boxes, I felt a wide range of emotions: nostalgia, as I looked at my middle school report card; amusement as I stumbled across an embarrassing photo of my older sister; and a tinge of selfishness as I wondered how life would be different now that my parents would no longer be ninety minutes away.

But tonight, as we shared one last dinner together before their car ride south, I felt an overwhelming sense of fear – not for being alone, but fear for my little brother as he leaves the home he has always lived in, the friends he has always had, and the small town where nearly everyone knows who he is.

I do not want my little brother to become a hashtag. And I am terrified of what could happen to him somewhere else.

We’ve all seen the headlines: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Freddie Gray. The message has been made clear. Black people, especially young black men of color, are feared. They are looked at as threats. And they are not safe.

Black people in this country suffer from historical scars whose effects can be seen in the systematic failures that plague many today. It’s well documented how people of color, especially young Black men, are systematically under-educated, disproportionately targeted by police, and over-represented in the criminal justice system. Combined with the deep-seated, widespread expectation of black criminality, too many people in this country simply can’t, or won’t, recognize the entrenched racial undertones that permeate our society, and struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don’t look like them.

As I watch the news and see a crowd of mostly Black community members gathered in Ferguson—t-shirts covering their faces to protect them from tear gas as law enforcement officials greet them with rifles, tear gas canisters, pepper spray, and at one point, military tanks—I can’t help but think how little we’ve progressed. There may no longer be fire hoses spraying protestors, but the response to Black citizens seeking justice and equality is the same, and it is terrifying.

As I spoke to my brother one last time before boarding a train back to New York, I tried to let go of my negative thoughts. But I can’t help but worry how the world sees and will treat my little brother. To me, he is the jokester, the athlete, and one of my best friends. It just doesn’t seem fair or rational that a stranger could view him as a threat.

The constant cycle of police violence and racial conflict is emotionally draining.  And it is hard to maintain positivity and hope when skin color still determines so much of what we will experience in day-to-day America. I can only hope that our nation takes a good, collective look in the mirror, and recognizes the senselessness of inequality before any more young Black men have to pay the price.

Ashley and her brother in 2007

Ashley and her brother in 2007