No one questions the power of social media when it's used to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research and other causes. No one questions the power of social media when no-name YouTubers become famous overnight, borne along by the mighty Like button. No one questioned the power of social media when it was used to discuss Mitt Romney and his binders full of women, or to help elect President Obama. In general, it's understood that social media is a powerful part of our lives today. We spend all day on social media: checking our Facebook, scrolling through our Twitter feeds, taking ridiculous-ass selfies on Instagram, sharing sappy inspirational videos. So why, when it comes to racism on social channels, does social media become "just social media"?
It's a phenomenon I started checking for in late 2013 when I slowly realized that when I discussed the disgusting displays of privilege and racism that I witness daily on platforms like Facebook and Twitter with (white) people offline, there was a marked lack of interest and an air of dismissal. "Well, that's just the Internet," I have been told about a thousand times since I began noticing this. "Trolls love doing that stuff. They live for it."
Ahh trolls. The bullies of the Internet. The Internet, while so often a joyous source of cat pictures and blogs so brilliant that they make your brain explode, is also a Petri dish of trolls and unchecked adolescent attitude. The dreaded Comment Section, where geniuses and bottom-feeders collide, is a no-man's-land of insight and insult battling for control. In short, it's terrifying. The Internet is terrifying and wonderful, but it's also something else.
When are trolls not trolls? When do the people who pop up in my favorite follows' mentions and demand to be walked through Racism 101 (and then disagree with every provided example) stop being dismissed as trolls and start being seen for what they truly are: real people who have racist and sexist opinions and are choosing to share them on social media. Because there's a difference. There is. Trolls thrive on stirring up drama. They are generally anonymous or using a fake name, are sometimes paid, and spend their time spewing inflammatory, extreme garbage (whether they personally agree with it or not) in a deliberate attempt to piss the world off while delighting in the havoc they wreak. But what about the people who use their real names? People who tweet about football and politics and books they're reading... and also derail critical discussions on racism with cluelessness, self-centeredness, deliberate obliviousness, and bigotry. What about them? I've got a name for them: regulars. Because the stuff they do on social media -- the derailing; the pretend-curiosity where they ask people of color basic questions about racism that could've been answered with their own research and then dismiss all points made; the "but I don't see race: I can't be racist" stuff; the "but my boyfriend is black: I can't be racist" stuff -- is just that: regular. It's the stuff so many white people do in the real world, on the regular. Not trolls. People. In real life.
A recently deleted Twitter account, for example, was not trolling. We'll call the tweeter "Becky." After she dropped some truly classic white privilege nonsense onto Twitter bemoaning the restraints of her whiteness and how the reverse racism of Black Twitter kept her from being "included," she deleted her Twitter account. But Becky was not a troll. Becky, however misguided and ridiculous, was just a young woman with a severe case of white privilege and a deep lack of education on racism and intersectionality. When she tweeted about how unfair it was that Black Twitter excluded her from their conversations, she wasn't stirring the pot and waiting gleefully for outraged replies to fill her mentions. She was just tweeting the regular stuff that I've heard many white people who are uneducated about racism and privilege say: "I have something I want to say about the way I think racism works, but because I'm white, black people don't listen to me! It's not fair. That's reverse racism." Never mind the fact that much discussion, research and writing has already taken place on the topic. Becky wanted to be heard, and her unchecked white privilege couldn't handle not being heard. So... regular.
Or what about @GreenLiberation? She took to Twitter to tell everyone that she was teaching the kindergartners she's responsible for to believe that they are "beyond their race," and that one simply has to claim to be "green" or "blue," or whatever color they choose in order to transcend their race. Every notion of "colorblindness" that has been established as privileged and damaging, she employed. When she was criticized, she proceeded to tweet for days (in fact, she was still tweeting about it last time I looked) about how the people asking her to check her privilege were "a lynch mob." (Really.) By claiming not to "identify with" white people, she says she therefore does not benefit from white privilege. [Insert guffaw.] She is not a troll in the way that "troll" is generally defined. She wasn't actively trying to make anyone mad: she was just doing what a lot of regular, oblivious white people do. She has almost 10,000 followers, not a shady 51-follower profile with an egg avatar. She's a real person.
I write a lot about white privilege, race, and racism, and I -- like everyone else who writes about these issues -- get a lot of hate mail, although certainly less than writers of color who write about the same topics. Daily I receive ignorant tweet after ignorant tweet, book-length emails telling me what an idiot I am, comments on my blog calling me a race traitor (yawn) and an ugly bitch (sigh), and messages to my fan page on Facebook calling me names that would make a pirate blush. It used to bother me. It doesn't anymore. My block hand is strong (pow!) and my "Report As Spam" reflex is cat-like. But something else does bother me, and it's that vast number of people who dismiss this online racist behavior with slightly exasperated statements such as "It's the Internet," or (the most common, given my favorite social platform), "It's just Twitter."
No, it's not. This is the world.
When we say racist behavior on the Internet is "just the Internet" -- "that's the way it is" -- we are not only justifying that behavior, but we are erasing the experiences of those who are on the receiving end of it. Why should racism be treated with any less seriousness because it's in the form of a 140-character microaggression as opposed to an epithet hurled from a car window? Is racism not racism, no matter what form it takes? When this question is posed, the answer is inevitably: "Well... why can't people just ignore it? Again, it's just the Internet."
Oh? How often do you have your Twitter feed flooded with people who think they aren't racist but demand to be educated on the proof of racism's existence, meanwhile becoming more and more irate and emotionally abusive with every tweet they send? I'm not even talking about my own lived experience, although I've experienced some of this. I'm talking about the stuff I see tweeters of color (ToC) experience regularly, experiences that are regarded with neutrality from offline observers and even the perpetrators: "I'm just asking questions! I'm asking you to educate me, what's the big deal! How am I being racist when I'm just telling you that I disagree with everything you believe and don't think your lived experiences are valid? That's what the Internet is for! Discussion!" The anxiety (and annoyance) this kind of microaggression is as real online as it is in reality, so why the reluctance to relate these modes?
By dismissing online racism as "the way it is" on the Internet, by sweeping racist social media behavior under the rug, we are saying that ToC have to accept what they get on Twitter. ToC must be ready to accept abuse, this logic says, if they want to be part of the Internet that white Twitter users enjoy racism-free. We are allowing the "regulars" of the Internet to proceed unchecked in behavior that is demonstrably harmful and offensive to ToC, meanwhile mythologizing their hurt and normalizing racism.
You know who else I call "regulars" though? The people who do this dismissing. Because Internet or not, this is the same kind of excuse-making behavior I see in the "real world" when white people who are unaffected by racism and choose to remain unaware of white privilege are confronted with conversations about harmful behavior of white people. Dismissal. Excuse-making. Blame-shifting. The unwillingness to drop the r-word. The reluctance to hold other white people accountable. But racism on social media isn't less real because it takes place on social media. Racist words aren't any less racist because they are shared in the form of a tweet. What's unreal about the Internet anyway? We use it to reconnect with old friends and new ones; get in touch with college professors; share our life announcements such as engagements and pregnancies; ask for help; look for jobs. I'm using it to fund my novel. Many of my friends use it to meet dates. It's real. Our lives are wrapped up in it. We can't acknowledge the successes that occur because of it while dismissing the failures -- especially the harm that those failures cause.
Olivia Cole is a poet, author and activist who writes regularly at oliviaacole.wordpress.com.