How to Use Twitter to Go Beyond Your Fault Lines
February 28, 2013
We often talk to journalists about ways to use Twitter and social media to broaden their understanding and awareness of a wide spectrum of communities. In this article, reprinted with permission, Sarah Milstein talks about the insights gained by listening in on Twitter conversations and provides specific tips on how to go about filling your feed with new voices and new perspectives. The original article can be found here: "Can Twitter Make White People Less Racist?" - MIJE Staff
By Sarah Milstein
Dogs and Shoes (Blog)
I'm going to assume that you're not a KKK-type racist. You are on the internet, so I'm taking a bit of a risk, but you are probably not looking for lynchings to cheer and demanding that black nurses at the hospital stay away from your white newborn. You're not a racist in the sense that you're not actively advocating for white supremacy. But you are racist.
The distinction between the noun (a racist) and the adjective (racist) makes all the difference. Because you don't have to be a racist to have racist thoughts. In fact, you don't even have to be white. Truckloads of research have shown that we all have hidden biases--including biases against groups to which we belong. So I am going to assume that if you're reading this, you're either a search-engine bot or a human, and if you're human, like me, you're racist. (Actually, if you're a search-engine bot, it turns out you're probably racist, too. This shit is pernicious.)
Let's be clear: hidden biases aren't benign just because they're hidden. Rather the opposite. Let's say you're white, and you think you're being a good citizen because you would never call anybody a nigger--but you're not even aware that race is a factor when you think a white job candidate is more qualified than a black candidate with the same or stronger credentials. In other words, your hidden biases are hidden from you. Which means you that you can hire the white person without recognizing that you favored her for her race, and you won't be prompted to examine your role in a system of racial inequality you probably say you deplore.
If you're white,* you have a special obligation to understand these patterns, because you're the passive beneficiary of them. Not only did you get more favorably reviewed if you were the candidate above, but--to name just a very few of the many well-documented benefits of whiteness in the U.S.--you're also more likely to be approved for a mortgage, more likely to survive cancer, and way less likely to be stopped randomly by the police. And, of course, if you're white, you're a lot less likely to be aware of the role race plays in your life on a daily basis.
So if you're white, you're benefitting from racism, you're likely perpetuating it--let's say unintentionally-and it's a problem. The question is: What are you doing about it? Last week, writing for the Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith put it plainly:
"Not every white person is a racist, but the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils. If you’re white, you can be completely oblivious, passively accepting the status quo, and reap the rewards....So my solution? White people have to let go of racism....Your next question is probably, 'How?' Listening to people of color, earnestly, is a start. "
Here's a concrete way you can listen--even if none of your best friends is black: on Twitter, follow and read a significant number of people of color who sometimes talk about race and link to relevant media. People like Michele Norris, Tanehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jamil Smith, Jay Smooth, Baratunde Thurston, Elon James White, Adam Serwer, Rinku Sen, Ai-jen Poo.
How many people of color should you follow? It depends on how you use Twitter, but enough so that every day you're on the service, you catch at least one or two conversations about race. Note that most singers, actors and athletes of any color don't fit the bill; with rare exceptions like Spike Lee and Chuck D, celebrities don't tend to talk about race in public; it's part of the gig.
This is not a fairy-dust approach. As Smith says, you have to listen earnestly. Over a period of time, you have to regularly read people's tweets, and check out some of the things they link to, do a deeper dive with some real-talk books they discuss, and try to understand where they're coming from. You do not get a gold star for following Blair LM Kelley or Jamelle Bouie and then ignoring them. You also cannot follow a sole person of color, deem them sexy, and then congratulate yourself for combating racism. That's the exact opposite of the point, not to mention just gross.
If you do work the plan, here's what you'll likely find: many people of color care about important stories and angles that white people are largely unaware of. When the USPS announced that it was planning to stop Saturday delivery, how many of your white friends made snarky comments about being pleased to get junk mail less frequently and how many expressed concern about job cutbacks at an institution that has for decades provided a path to middle class life particularly for black Americans? How many of your white friends have been reading up on the prospects for immigration reform? How many of your white friends talked about Hadiya Pendleton when she was killed earlier this year?
At the same time, you'll find that people of color do not all--brace yourself--feel the same way about everything. Not about Obama's policies. Not about the racial dynamics of Django Unchained. Not about the US media's coverage of rape in India. Not about the whiteness of Girls. Not about Marco Rubio's background. Not about "Tiger Moms." Not about affirmative action. Not about Cory Booker's record. Not even about Beyonce. (Possible exception: there's a lotta love for Little Known Black History Facts.)
The point is that when you tune into a group that has experiences different from your own, you'll gain perspective. And possibly empathy. In other words, tools to help you overcome your hidden bias.
I've been on Twitter since it started (no, really), and for about two years, I've been intentional about following and paying attention to people of color. I didn't just have a sudden "OMGblackpeople!" moment--I've had pretty standard white progressive semi-awareness of race since grooving as a kid to Free To Be You and Me and taking a lot of Black Studies classes in college. But as I say, I decided a while back to devote some headspace to better understanding racism.
A couple of years in, here's what I've observed in myself: I'm more aware of the role race plays in a lot of public issues, and I'm more aware of the prejudices I carry. I'm not free of bias by any means. For instance, reading this article recently, I had no problem picturing a black welfare recipient with a poor work ethic yet was challenged to imagine a white one--despite my having known, in actual real life, people with the dead-opposite virtues. Still, my growing awareness has a tangible impact: I'm increasingly better at connecting with people of color. I wasn't consciously cold before, but I was a little afraid of saying the wrong thing or being seen first for my race (I get it: IRONY), espcially around black people. Lately, I'm probably a little too wink-wink-nudge-nudge-I'm-a-White-Person-Who-Thinks-About-Race, so there's still work to do. And I don't want to suggest that my black neighbors were waiting for me to bestow my white-person friendliness. But being less guarded is a key outcome here. A) It's more fun; and B) it's a way to take the benefits of listening beyond Twitter.
A small data point: Coincidentally, around the time I started listening more carefully to people of color on Twitter, I also took the Project Implicit hidden bias test. It showed me to have "moderate" preference for white people. Out of curiosity, I took it again recently. This time, I was rated "neutral," showing no preference one way or the other. The test isn't a perfect indicator, but I don't think the results are a matter of chance, either.
So go boldly forth from your sofa and seriously follow some people of color on Twitter. It won't be the last step in recognizing and addressing your own baked-in racism. It will be the first step. But you can make it an effective place to start when you want to be neither a racist nor racist.
* No question that for race, the labels "black" and "white" are murky. Indeed, they're anything but black and white. First, there are questions of how race is socially constructed. Second, a really lot of people are multiracial. For the purposes of this post, I assume that enough readers identify as white, whatever that may mean, to make the label meaningful in context.
A note on comments: I’m interested in a good conversation on this topic, and I welcome opinionated comments on this post. Seeing, however, as the internet tends to draw vile comments on sex and race, I should mention that I will edit or delete hateful and phobic comments, personal attacks on me or other commenters, off-topic threads (including assholic comments on this comments policy) and things that strike me as trolling. If you dislike that approach, comment on any of the 80 billion other sites that welcome diversity of obnoxiousness.
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