On July 18, 2018, twenty-year-old college student Mollie Tibbetts went out for a jog in her small town in Iowa. Her body was found one week later and soon after, the police arrested and charged Christhian Bahena Rivera with her murder. Rivera is an undocumented immigrant. Since then, her unfortunate death has been exploited to fuel the debate on immigration issues in the U.S. Mollie’s family came forward soon after these political debates took off and asked that her death not be used for anyone’s political agenda. Mollie’s father also came to the defense of the Latinx community.
It is not the obvious defense of immigrants that I have often been vocal of that I want to address. It feels wrong to use this young woman’s death for political discourse. Quite frankly, it is disgusting. Rather, experiencing how this news has been communicated to the general public makes me consider how to approach these attacks from the media.
To begin, I want to reflect on my own personal reaction when I read the first article I came across. The headline did not mention anything regarding immigration. It simply stated that a young woman’s body was found after she was reported missing. In all honesty, the picture of this woman who looked so happy grabbed my attention more than anything else. I clicked on the online article and I am disappointed to report that as I began reading, I quickly fell victim to this media outlet’s traps. I felt several emotions. First, I was saddened to read about this tragedy and tears rimmed my eyes when I saw the picture of this young woman smiling at the camera. Then, I was enraged to see that the perpetrator’s immigration status had to be mentioned. But after I stopped seeing red, I also realized that I was instantly angry at Mollie Tibbetts’ family because I believed that it was her family that probably preferred to have the perpetrator’s immigration status mentioned. Nothing in the article pointed to this, but I unintentionally jumped to this conclusion on my own. Why? Because Mollie Tibbetts was white. I don’t know this for a fact. Again, the article does not mention this. My only basis for this assumption is that her skin was white and her last name is white. I sighed, felt annoyed, and closed the window on my computer with the article. Then I moved on with my day.
A few days later, a friend of mine sent me a screenshot of Mollie’s family member’s statement to the media to stop exploiting her murder and the link to an article discussing how Mollie’s family was defending the Latinx community. I remember I instantly felt ashamed of myself. I had done what I want so badly for people to stop doing. I judged this young woman and her family based on the color of their skin and on their last name. I almost cried reading about how aggressively Mollie’s family stood up for her and for others. And it is so sad that seeing people of different races defend one another is so surprising to me these days.
I hate that when I read an article, I know what this reporter wants me to feel. I know they want to bring this hatred out of me and their poisonous words are click bait. They want me to talk about how angry these articles make me and share their stories because at the end of the day all publicity is good publicity. Then I think, “I’ll just keep my mouth shut and I win because I do not give them what they want.” But then, how will we ever get anywhere if we sit silently and watch? It’s a catch-22.
The only logical plan to me is to unite as a common group of people-as members of humanity-who will not discuss malignant reports from the media; to recognize that their bullshit is click-bait; to stay silent as a choice because we are aware that these assholes want a hateful reaction from us. But this “logical” solution is not feasible. Even if not one single person fell victim to the media’s click-bait and even if not one single comment were uttered, their ideas are still circulated. These insults will still be published. It’s like when Melania Trump wore the infamous jacket that stated, “I really don’t care, do you?” to visit the detention centers on the Texas-Mexico border. It was a publicity stunt. When people voiced their anger, they were immediately attacked and disregarded as hypocrites who were only concerned with fashion choices instead of the wonderful decision the First Lady made to see these children who had been separated from their parents. If not one person had commented on her stupid jacket, then perhaps neither the Trump administration nor the media would have gotten what they wanted. But to stay silent also feels like being walked all over. Staying silent means swallowing your pride and your anger and losing the fight.
All I can think of doing is being aware of the irresponsible way media outlets report their news and then carefully choosing our reactions. I can learn to differentiate between which reactions and comments are productive and which ones are destructive. I am not sure what the solution is. But I know that I can learn from this and from Mollie’s life. I can learn that I have my own biases and premature opinions and I can be cruel with them. I can learn to sit back and reflect on the fact that I need to mean what I say and understand all humans, not just those that share the color of my skin because it is comfortable for me to do so. I can learn that I should not always attack first. I can learn that while I always have my guard up, I do not have to jump to my own race’s defense when no shots have been fired by another race. They are pitting us against each other, and we need to be smart enough to recognize that.