Comments, Human Rights, In Focus, Politiks

How to learn about ‘racism’ from the Internet

God bless technology. Everywhere we turn we are faced with the joys that is has afforded us, and the internet is perhaps its Holy Grail.

Teresa Whitney

Rochelle Burgess

We are now saturated with information and taken in by the power that it gives us to be heard.  We can post comments and express opinions that we might not express in person, finding ourselves protected by a cyber cushion of distance and anonymity, with the repercussions of these beliefs a distant worry.

The downside of this can be found in the sharing of opinions that blatantly attack or criticize others. For example, the ever-popular Urban Dictionary gives a taste of the joy and disaster of personal opinions contributing to the development of knowledge and opinion.

The hilarity behind definitions for individual names (both Rochelle and Teresa, create a bevy of joys) is a stark contrast to the internal cringe that follows from reading entries for the term ‘black people.’ In this instance, we see all too easily how the Internet becomes a safe space where online anonymity creates a sense of private public expression.

Racist ideals can exist and be supported privately without fear of repercussion.

The secrecy afforded to those who agree with such ideals is one of the major social problems of the Internet – it allows people to keep these ideals, but simultaneously avoid the fall out when they are challenged – an impossibility if they are taken outdoors into the realm of the real world and its ‘political correctness.’

The most dangerous output of the Internet, could easily be linked to the disconnect between what can, and is, said online and what is said and done in ‘real life.’ Cyber anonymity fosters a lack of critical thinking that  sustains this disconnect. It affords people the privilege of appearing politically correct in public, but embracing racist views from the comfort of their own keyboard.

The recent uproar surrounding the film Hunger games, and the uncovering of racist ideals among a fairly young populous (see the Slate article by L.V. Anderson and this Jezebel post for excellent commentary) is a particular cause for concern around issues of race and cyber anonymity.  There is a growing online effort to publicly shame individuals who express racist ideals, seen for example on Hunger Game Tweets.

The blog’s owner has been tracking Tweets about the book and film, calling attention to posts that espouse a range of negative emotions about casting two of the most beloved characters as black.

The image of Rue as an innocent little girl was destroyed for some fans because the actor is “some black girl;” her death suddenly becomes less tragic because of the color of her skin. Being white is symbolically important, while being anything else diminishes the value of the person.

Despite this blog calling people out on their racism, which has caused some public scrutiny (see Anna Holmes’s article in the New Yorker for a good example), this discussion is still dominated by those who are already predisposed to attend to these issues.

Unsurprisingly, producers of the negative opinions quickly disappear from these same spaces when their views are contested. In our information-saturated world, we must search out knowledge.

Most dangerously, we leave the knowledge we are less interested in, (and most often, those which contradict our beliefs) behind. Left to our own devices, we can easily exist in a world where our ideas are not questioned, our beliefs left unchallenged. The status quo remains the status quo simply because it can.

What is most alarming about the Hunger Games Tweets is the age of the posters.

The majority of the posters are young, some in college, many still school aged. The young remain our best reflection of society.

What we know we have learned from others. In the past, family, friends, teachers, and community and religious leaders most dominantly shaped our beliefs. Now, however, that circle has been broadened considerably to include any person in the world who can post comments on the Internet.

Youth are implicitly given information that projects a norm, but the symbolic dimensions of that norm, and how race plays into it, are never unpacked. The invisible/visible axis of whiteness and its associated privilege is left unaddressed, and white privilege is taken for granted, a cycle that has persisted for far too long.

Young people are not passive agents; they are incredibly active and critical.

But, because there is little to no incentive to engage with the invisible nature of whiteness and all its privileges, the young are sucked into the cycle of racist passivity.

We, as a society, need to engage with our youth in a meaningful way if we are going to end this passivity. And, in order to have a meaningful discussion, we need to address what whiteness is and what it means.

We so often talk in terms of the racial other – Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Muslim (among many other socially created categories) – but fail to talk about the other half: White. We are, in essence, leaving out half of the conversation. One only needs to look at school curriculum.

Many schools celebrate Black History Month. While it is crucial to include minority contributions to history as part of our curriculum, what does having a separate month for them imply to the majority? Is this not a way of re-enforcing the difference we seek to reduce? Why aren’t the topics covered in Black History Month already part of the whole curriculum? It signals black and Latino contributors to history as different, as add-ons to a separately determined ‘white’ history.

So how do we move forward? Perhaps we should start with an honest, open, and critical discussion with our youth. They are the ones who will shape the future, and their power to enact change should never be underestimated.

One way would be to make sure that spaces where issues of race are engaged with are ones that demand presence, and accountability.

Schools are we shape these young minds, and as such, they should be places where we require them to engage with society’s most important issues while still in a safe space (see this example for work being done on school children and contesting radicalized representations).

Perhaps places where we learn about race, and the need to challenge those meanings, should be brought back to schools. Perhaps everything we learn about race should be anchored in kindergarten, and leave the Internet for those of us who still need to learn how to Dougie.

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