I Desegregated My Twitter Feed, And You'll Never Believe What Happened Next

Because White people have so few non-White people in their social circles, it is easy for White communities to perpetuate a fantasy in which their own relative social advantage comes at no cost to others. Even my social media life seemed to reinforce my racial and socioeconomic isolation.
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This post originally appeared at justinccohen.com.

Racial segregation in the United States, in both housing and schooling, is more severe now than at any time since before the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. Not dissimilar from the statutory sort of segregation that predated the Civil Rights movement, our current predicament emerges from a cocktail of policy, preference, prejudice, and personal choice. This separation of the races not only exacerbates opportunity gaps for people of color, but also protects White people from understanding the severity of those gaps. Robert Jones, writing in The Atlantic, found that:

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent) ... Widespread social separation is the root of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of [unarmed Black people].

Because White people have so few non-White people in their social circles, it is easy for White communities to perpetuate a fantasy in which their own relative social advantage comes at no cost to others. Even when White Americans confront the facts and figures that elucidate inequity, whether our family and neighbors are affected by those facts will affect whether we prioritize their relevance. If our neighbor's house burns down, it's a crisis that needs to be addressed. If someone on the news loses a child, it's a real shame, but would you pass the salad dressing, please?

I found myself in a truly segregated environment for the first time in 2013, when my wife and I moved to a suburban community in Massachusetts that is 97% White. The dearth of people of color was shocking to me; I had grown up in a racially mixed suburb, lived in majority non-White cities all of my adult life, and worked in a field - public schooling - that put me in regular contact with professionals of color. The stark lack of diversity in my own town was exacerbated by the fact that our move coincided with the increased visibility of police violence in Black communities, and the concomitant rise of the movement for Black lives. Our decision made me feel like a fraud, as my professional chest-thumping about the virtues of diversity and equity were compromised by my personal decision to live in a racially homogenous community. While my real life neighbors and I debated how late their dogs should be allowed to walk on the beach, I was freaking out that more and more unarmed Black people were falling to police violence.

"Even though Twitter afforded me the opportunity to follow anyone I wanted, I had disproportionately chosen to follow people who were a lot like me: White dudes."

Even my social media life seemed to reinforce my racial and socioeconomic isolation, as platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook rely on both real-world interactions and algorithmic sorting to facilitate connections. So, in the midst of this existential divergence between my personal decisions and what I thought were my values, I made a conscious decision to "desegregate" my social media presence. I started with Twitter, for a couple of reasons. First, Twitter was where I saw the most honest depiction of racist violence by the state against private citizens; this was a trend documented during the "Green Revolution" in Iran, and the status-disrupting potential of the platform hit even closer to home after the uprising in Ferguson. In addition, Twitter's technical specs were perfect for my desegregation purposes: you can follow anyone you want, without the need for reciprocation; information flows as it is posted, without algorithmic controls over what you see and when; and the pace of the medium, coupled with the volume of content, creates a less guarded atmosphere, which is a double-edged sword that both encourages risk-taking and punishes mistakes swiftly.

The first thing I noticed when I embarked on this project was that, even though Twitter afforded me the opportunity to follow anyone I wanted, I had disproportionately chosen to follow people who were a lot like me: White dudes. That was the first thing I changed. I followed more people of color, particularly women and Black people, and I unfollowed people whose perspectives seemed duplicative of my own, White guys. This whole process made me uncomfortable, partly because I was building gender and race quotas into my virtual live, but more so because I exposed myself to conversations and cultures wherein my own experience was not the norm. I had been in personal and professional contexts before where White folks were not in the majority, but those were usually meetings or parties that ended. On my Twitter timeline, for the first time, I experienced a perpetual conversation where my own identity was not prioritized, unlike mainstream American culture, where my White maleness had been supreme for centuries.

Twitter is not real life, but I learned some important lessons about the asymmetries in my relationships through my engagement there. First, I learned that I was not a good listener, especially when the main things I needed to hear challenged preconceptions about my own identity. My twitter feed cared not one fuck about the fragility of my White guy feelings and regularly fed me tough dosages of real talk about the bad behavior of White people, even those of us who identify as "allies" to non-White people and their political objectives. I also realized that I sometimes shirked listening responsibilities, because I was too busy soliciting absolution from my friends of color, begging them for acknowledgment that I was not "one of the racist ones." While it should have been self-evident to me that none of those behaviors made for good relationships, the online world can be a more direct source of feedback. The first time I replied to an activist on Twitter by shaking my head ("smh," in online parlance) at "other white people who want cookies for allyship," she correctly told me that I was replicating the exact behavior that I said I was trying to fix.

The other major thing that happened when I desegregated my Twitter feed is that it sharpened into relief just how White my physical community was. Whereas my timeline came to contain a representative slice of the American population, with perhaps a slight overrepresentation of Black voices, my town remained 97% White. Despite having spent the rest of my life in more integrated towns and institutions, just two years in an all-White environment had affected my perception of what constituted reality. Whether you call it "White privilege" or not, the ability to permanently escape the negative effects of racial injustice in American culture is an option only enjoyed by White people.

My wife and I now live in a more integrated environment, but my two years in the Massachusetts suburbs illustrated to me that whether real or virtual, segregation is a human construct that can be overcome by human counteractions. I will never choose a job or residence again without contemplating the impact that choice will have on my values. I also will remain vigilant about the demographic composition of the spaces, real and virtual, that I choose to enter. The cognitive dissonance I experienced in those two years taught me more about the psychology of privilege than any other period of my life. When you live amongst White homogeneity, it's not just easier on your psyche to avoid contemplating your own role in segregation: it's the bare necessity to prevent madness. Denying privilege isn't just an attempt at maintaining power; it's the act of preserving one's own mental health.

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