My generation was raised using the internet. During various phases of our lives, we have experimented with education, entertainment, media, relationships, and communications online. The internet was the tool through which we researched and applied to college, and now in college it is increasingly becoming our primary way to approach our assignments, research, and routine activities. Seeing as we use the internet on average for more than 25 hours per week, I could confidently say that we know the internet pretty well. Just as we recognize the shortcomings of any person that we have come to know, we cannot pretend that we do not also recognize the faults of the internet. And it turns out, the internet is racist.
Well, not all of it, of course. Most of it is porn. A lot of it is cats. But with the emergence of an internet dominated by social media, a plethora of blunt and pervasive racism has become appallingly visible. What perhaps previously could not be found without deliberate searching is now broadcast across social media, in users’ personal information-feeds as well as through the most trafficked areas of the web.
But, of all things, why would the spaces of the internet instigate something as vile as racism?
A simplistic explanation would be that people themselves possess racist tendencies, and that social media simply provides resources to dissipate this bigotry online. The argument here would be that the internet hasn’t changed any aspect of our society in particular, but that it has only spread existing characteristics of our culture across a new platform. Moreover, the nature of the internet (a less easily regulated, more easily anonymized space) makes it ideal for people to act impulsively, expressing racism without much hesitation. But this argument alone is not sufficient enough to let us shrug off the pervasive phenomenon of internet racism. There is much more to it.
In recent years, especially following the rise of free social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, etc., demographics of internet users that were once excluded from the web have begun to contribute their voices. This, in itself, is a positive development; it represents a broadening of accessibility to the internet’s underrepresented demographics (minorities, low-income groups, etc). But then you begin to see the content: the countless “white people vs. black people” clips (demeaning for both communities), the propagation of Asian American stereotypes, the race-based memes, and the amount of racial slurs (predominantly “nigga”) in media across the web. On video services like Vine and YouTube (dare I include World Star Hip-Hop?), the majority of content is produced by everyday amateurs, and racism becomes a real problem as the prevalence of racist videos is growing in both number and in popularity.
Furthermore, we find that a surprising amount of internet racism and stereotyping material is produced by people of the racially marginalized groups. The aforementioned videos often feature minorities complicit in the racism, i.e. blacks and Asians acting stereotypically black or Asian. This self-deprecating, racist humor (a phenomenon which deserves an entire discussion in itself) is being used as a means of gaining online popularity. It is upsetting to see how amateur-comedians and wannabe celebrities of social media exploit racist themes and stereotypes, so easily willing to trade dignity for laughs, reposts, or “followers.” Worse, on the web, it is these overplayed stereotypes that garner the most attention, getting more exposure than proper representations (the third top auto-finish option for a Google search for “Asian” is “Asian jokes”). Ultimately, the racist material of the internet and those who produce it are working against the progress others have made in breaking down stereotypes.
And there is yet another level to the malady of racism on the internet. Even if we assume that the aforementioned media only exists as a small portion of the internet’s content, it is nonetheless giving users of the World Wide Web the wrong impression about racial empathy. Before our eyes, the internet is changing into a place where individuals (especially those of my generation and younger) are feeling more license to say or do things they would normally avoid. What is socially acceptable is growing more divergent from what is social-media acceptable. Though we often overlook it as entertainment, racism is nearly ubiquitous online. I’d encourage anyone who still pretends that we live in a ‘post-racial’ society to log-on to the internet and really examine what they find in browsing Google or YouTube.
For example, look at racial slurs, and how profuse they have become across the web. Not only are they common on anonymous spaces like YouTube commentary (notorious for political incorrectness), but slurs are also found in many cases of smaller scale, more personal spaces. A friend from my hometown, a middle-class white female who lives in a gated community, has a tendency to use ‘NIGGA’ in her tweets (capitalized like that), for no other reason than shrewd humor. Another Twitter account I followed was a parody account for college life, which one day tweeted a very shocking and unusual statement: “Niggas got all the swag in the world until you ask them to read a paragraph out loud.” As a final example, near the end of this summer a newly admitted student of undetermined ethnicity posted in Princeton’s Facebook group about “the realest niggas” living in his assigned dorm building. Have slurs suddenly lost meaning on the internet?
The problem of racism on the internet is one for which we all are somewhat responsible, and for which we all must take a part in remedying. Profusion of internet racism stems not only from staunch racists, but also attention-seeking individuals, everyday people whose racism may be teased out by the seemingly anything-goes nature of the web, and by all of us who sit back and witness racism online and do not react indignantly. On the internet, a medium which disseminates information even more easily than television, we must recognize that it is extremely important to see how our society represents different cultures. Just like television, the internet is a space where people can have exposure to people and cultures that they may otherwise have not experienced. We have to work to ensure that their sole exposures to separate races are not over-the-top ethnic stereotypes.
As someone who advocates and researches internet freedoms (including freedom of speech), I am not proposing that we inhibit the ability of others to express themselves online. However, the prevalence and the vulgarity of racism online should further demonstrate to us that these social challenges have not been resolved, and that we must continue to address the very real issues of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination within our physical society. And as for cyberspace, while we may not be able to forcefully reduce existing racist material, the onus is on us to counterbalance the offensive material with meaningful material that instead points out problematic racial content and its harm to our communities. I still have faith in the very democratic and self-redeeming nature of our internet community. Websites like Racialicious, Colorlines, Slate, Vulture, Salon, Jezebel, and even Buzzfeed are sites that are able to take a more journalistic vengeance on perpetrators of racism online. (Twitter, too, has a vengeful side. Just look at the recent digital persecution of Justine Sacco). The Stripes, as well, aims to help reduce racist conceptions, online and offline. Publications like these are needed to balance out prevailing racist perceptions. When I say that the internet is racist, it is important to understand that it is not inherently so; the internet is exactly what we decide to make it. The internet is only as racist as its content, and so it is time for us to start replacing the garbage with the truth.
Note: I actually have a Vine account, and normally enjoy the videos. I want to share some funny examples that kind of go against stereotypical assumptions and racist trends in clever ways: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhQqgUMggB4 & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8BhjkPeDtw