Category Archives: Twitter

White People Do Not Understand Racism

White people, at large, do not understand racism. The evidence presents itself in Facebook arguments, in discussions on the street, in national scandals, and on Twitter. We do not get it.

Allow me to give an example: I sat more or less on the sidelines of the whole #CancelColbert debacle. Suey Park started a hashtag in response to a punchline tweeted by Comedy Central on the Colbert Report’s account. This tweet stated that Colbert was starting a foundation for Asian Americans using an ethnic slur in the title. It was a parody of the Washington Redsk*ns Original Americans Foundation. Park argued that the slur against Asian-Americans was unacceptable. Folks argued fiercely, and often viciously, on Twitter.

There are two reasons for my quiet. First, I can see both sides of the argument. It is fair to wish for a world where ethnic slurs are never used, because their use, even in satire, legitimizes their existence. On the other hand, satire of offensive things requires further offense to be effective, so the argument of #CancelColbert is either an indictment against satire as a genre or social justice NIMBYing. The second reason is my race: I experience many of the privileges of belonging to the dominant group. It is not my place to decide what an oppressed group’s liberation looks like. If slur prohibition is it, well, who am I to argue?

This did not dissuade other white people from arguing the point. (I am not discussing the folks who, unacceptably, peppered slurs and threats at Park. That is not an argument; that is an attack.) Many of Colbert’s defenders argued that he should be excused because he’s lampooning the racial hypocrisy of the owner of the Washington Redsk*ns towards Native Americans in the skit. I must have read about a dozen variations of the statement that he is one of the “good guys,” and should get a pass. There were even more discussions about the use of the slur should be excused because his motivations were benevolent.

Arguments of character and motive are not exclusive to the #CancelColbert hashtag. I see them every time a racial controversy arises. Being called a “racist” is an insult against one’s integrity. White folks assess what “side” someone generally sits on (progressives are generally presumed to be anti-racist, conservatives are presumed to be racist), and the trial is not of their actions, but of the intentions in their heart. This action suggests that racism is a matter of motivation.

Racism has many facets. One of them is racial prejudice, the personal belief that one race is superior to others. This is a large and enduring problem or else organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center would not need to exist. When most folks say someone is racist, or “a racist,” they mean that this person has a prejudice against people of other races.

For many white people, their understanding ends there. Racism is aligned to the narratives of conflict between Good Guys and Bad Guys. They see societal racism as the cumulative effect of individual people’s prejudice against Blacks, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and everyone else, if they think that far at all. The cure for racism is thus not to be “racist,” or racially prejudiced; it is to be an unbiased “Good Guy.” As long as someone does not feel that they hold these prejudices, they are not part of The Problem. They can waltz through American society guilt-free. The problem is Other People, The Bigots, the “Bad Guys.”

This is how racism is framed in children’s shows and elementary school discussions about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a simple narrative with a victorious resolution at the end. White kids, and white adults, leave the discussion with that perception. It’s only the white people; other races live their lives and thus know better.

If the problem is prejudice, and prejudice alone, then you can ascertain whether someone is part of the problem by evaluating their motivations and intentions. If someone is found to be bigoted, then the solution is to run them out of their platform, a la Paula Deen (or Colbert). Of course, if racism is simply a question of prejudice, then racism has no particular direction. This is the logic that creates the perception that racism against whites exists. This is faulty logic, and it is self-serving to whites.

It is wrong is because actions are harmful due to their consequences, not their intentions. It is like an overly friendly German Shepherd who says “hi” by tackling the neighborhood’s children. The behavior leaves the same number of bruises, regardless of whether it was meant to be friendly or aggressive. People experience the consequences of a behavior, not the intentions. Even if someone truly does not “mean it,” they are still responsible for their conduct. We have a legal system that evaluates the supposed severity of murder based on intention, and I suppose that therein lies the part of the justification for this intention-focus. The trouble is, someone still died, and their loved ones grieve all the same. Racism is similar because those who find themselves on the subordinate position of the racial hierarchy experience the consequences of racist behavior regardless of the intentions, over and over again. You did not mean to call someone the n-word? Guess what: they were still called the n-word, and had all the baggage of the slur laid on them.

The second reason it is wrong is because racism is not simply the result of prejudice. It is an enduring institution that separates society through a centrifuge of differential access to opportunities. Racism exists beyond individual prejudices; it exists in the foundation of everything we consider acceptable and laudable. For instance, we consider education to be a mark of betterment, but systemically deny equal educational opportunities to residents of poorer areas by our educational funding structure. Getting ahead in corporate America requires abiding by a set of norms that are easily familiar to upper middle class white people. The preferred accent of American English is one generally heard from the mouths of educated whites. Non-whites often find themselves more heavily policed in both schools and cities. Need I remind anyone that slavery was a very profitable industry?

Institutions are broader than individuals. The removal of one’s prejudice will not undo the wealth gap among different races, for instance. Structural injustices are why cities are so heavily racially segregated and why African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned. A white person could lack a single prejudice against members of other racial groups and this will not change the fact that they receive benefits from a racist society that presumes their inherent superiority. We look the part of what society considers to be virtuous, and will receive the presumption prior to presenting any proof. Anyone who has applied for apartments has likely experienced this. I certainly have.

Structural oppression has a direction: the domination flows from the powerful to the subordinate. In this case, it is not possible to have racism against white people, because Whites benefit from the organization of society. We do not just benefit, we reinforce it by participating in the narratives of worth and deserving that benefit us. When we fail to question the norms of society, we endorse them. When we presume that society is just, we facilitate an unjust society in functioning. Racism, and other social ills, will only be undone with a critical eye taken to all of our institutions. It is not going to be solved when everyone’s Racist Uncle Ralph dies.

These are difficult problems which will require years, maybe generations, of work. These are problems that are barely visible as long as the dominant narrative of racism is the clear-cut good guy/bad guy story of fairy tales, as it is for many white people. In order for racism to be eradicated, society itself has to be refashioned. The Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative serves Whites by allowing them to ignore structural problems by convincing a White person of their virtue in the context of racism. This narrative justifies ignoring structural racism by convincing white people it is not their problem as long as they avoid prejudiced behavior.

We are all complicit in the state of society and the moral imperative to fix it falls on all of us. White people need to stop discussing racism as though it were someone else’s other problem. We are causing it, piece by piece, every day. Prejudice is a problem, and it is important not to be bigoted. My point is that the work does not end there, as our culture has been so eager to pretend that it does. Otherwise we create a culture where it is forbidden to say certain terrible things about Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans, but it is completely acceptable that these groups, in the aggregate, live in a second-rate America. Really, what does it say about the intentions of White people if we permit, and then justify for, this to happen?

There are other ways that white people do not understand racism which involve the limits of theory and empathy in understanding other people’s lived experiences. I believe that our simplistic narrative of racism is a problem of misunderstanding more basic than that. We are socialized to believe that racism is a problem of the past, and the way things are is the same as the way things out to be. I am calling for more critical engagement with our society, and with our selves.

These are all issues that are completely independent of whether or not Suey Park was wise to call for the cancellation of the Colbert Report. She simply provided the theatre for racial rhetoric to play out. She simply provided the stage for us to see examples of how white people, broadly speaking, do not understand racism.

Edit: Missing sentence added.

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Twitter: Strengths and Challenges

So you know how to use Twitter.
You have an idea of how it can be useful.

Of course, there is a difference between potential uses and ideal uses. Wrenches can be used to pound nails into wall studs, but wouldn’t you prefer a hammer? There are different types of social media with different ideals.

Twitter is ideal for the following:

1) It is a great organizing tool for the already like minded. Twitter is great for asserting affinity with other people. Part of the reason that #NotYourAsianSidekick was so popular is because so many people had the same ideas already; they just hadn’t found the people they needed to discuss them with. Those using the hashtag already had a similar understanding of terms, common experiences, and spoke a similar-enough language that they did not need to spend much time establishing a communicative rapport.

2) It is a great way to share links and get information out there. The one hundred and forty character limit restricts what you can say. If your ideas can be summarized in a catchy headline with a link attached, your Twitter feed can be used to direct eyeballs to your web page. Incidentally, this is part of the reason that Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and others created and used linkbait headlines. If you are the sort of elderly-at-heart curmudgeon (like myself) who laments the days when everyone took everybody seriously, you may have a somewhat justified grudge against Twitter.

3) It is one of the forums through which things go “viral.” If you are into that sort of thing, you really cannot avoid using Twitter. Otherwise you might as well be trying to market the NFL without using the television, deciding to rely on newspaper and radio.

4) Its brevity means a lot of information can be synthesized quickly. This means that if your goal is to have lots of conversations with many people, the ways Twitter forces you to be brief can help keep a conversation on point. My own writing style has condensed considerably as a result of using Twitter.

5) Recruiting and Networking. Maybe you don’t need to sell something, you just need to find people who think like you do. Maybe you aren’t trying to unite them for a cause, but you just want to know who they are and that they exist. Twitter is great for creating a network of affinity. You will not find everyone like you, but you will find some of them, and probably figure out quickly who are the most prominent. By reading one’s feed and having a couple conversations, your kindred spirits will be revealed.

Great! Beware though, the terrain is tricky.

1) The way feeds work ensure that most people will first read your thread at the end or the middle, not at the beginning. If you are tweeting several ideas in succession, it is unlikely to be read properly. This facilitates misunderstandings.

2) Twitter’s search feature is not exhaustive. That means that if a hashtag does go viral, you cannot see the entire corpus of tweets and therefore you, or potential conversants, are missing something. I think there are ways around this if you know your way around coding a data scrape – if you are, you are not the target audience of this how-to guide!

3) Twitter is not a pedagogical tool, at least not singlehandedly. One hundred and forty characters are too few to teach someone a new concept. I would recommend Tumblr for teaching. It has a similar reblog/favorite structure, but it does not have the brevity requirements. Even if you string tweets together, odds are that the sequence will be lost or broken up in other feeds. If any tweet, out of context, could mean something different, then you will easily be misrepresented. Nearly all concepts have some degree of complexity. Twitter is not the place to convey them.

4) One hundred and forty characters are too short to change someone’s mind. Even then, it is hard to tell if the person you are arguing with is an earnest individual trying to make sense of their universe or a provocateur who gets their thrills by picking fights and wasting the time of others. I have watched many a social justice activist, high on their self-righteousness, fall into long-winded arguments with obvious trolls. Besides, after you say, “You’re wrong!” there are only 127 characters left. How compelling can you be?

5) The 140 character limit means that complicated ideas are reduced to their simplest forms. Complexity is reduced to soundbites. Everyone becomes a strawperson on Twitter, because there is no space to argue with nuanced enemies. People of color, adjuncts, conservative Christians, white feminists, and everyone else is generalized into a monolithic mass of stereotypes.

6) If you make a mistake on Twitter, or do something really stupid, you can have thousands of people on you instantly. Check out what happened with Ani DiFranco, or Justine Sacco. Both women were completely in the wrong, and they quickly had thousands of people to tell them this. Can you imagine thousands of people on your back for a mistake? That is the internet for you.

7) Trends live and die in a matter of hours. It is a flash and it is gone. The project of Suey Park and 18 Million Rising is to ensure that the rallying of common experience and frustration of #NotYourAsianSidekick lives beyond the hours and days of the hashtag. If something is to endure, it may begin on Twitter but it will need to live on in another venue. Twitter is like writing with water. It disappears quickly – it is tricky to find old tweets and conversations.

8) Most people are not on Twitter. Those who are tend to be skewed towards the educated and the young. Therefore it’s neither a proxy for public opinion, nor is it a great way to reach lots of people, unless your desired demographic happens to be young and educated.

Twitter is a great tool in the social media repertoire. It is a place where people can put their voices out there for anyone to hear. Just because anyone can read something does not mean that they will.

Tailor your use to your goals. Good luck!

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Why Bother With Twitter?

Now you know how to use Twitter. That is different than discerning why you may want to use the platform. I have found, in discussions of social media, that Twitter is treated with more contempt than other types of social media. The assumption is that because the messages are brief, the communication is inherently shallow. This is not necessarily the case.

Here are some ways I have seen Twitter used (with examples), though they aren’t the ways that I use it:

1) Organize for a social cause. Suey Park is an example of a Twitter organizer, as she uses hashtags to rally Asian Americans for feminist and anti-racist work.

 

2) Promote a good, service, or community. Part of what Tim Atkins does at the Church of the Larger Fellowship is use social media to ensure that people know that the congregation exists. He also uses social media to advance Unitarian Universalism, check it out. Nearly every large business and church has a Twitter account. The same can be said for large charities.

Our annual Year in Review / Best Of worship service begins in 20 min at 1:30ppm ET – Watch live and chat together http://t.co/LGP9CMoicu

— Quest for Meaning (@Quest4Meaning) December 30, 2013

 

3) Preach one’s faith. Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, tweets his thoughts… which often end up tying back to his faith. Twitter can be a way to model one’s faith, which is generally more effective as a recruiting tool (though I strongly doubt Rev. Cho is doing it for that reason).

Be kind to one another; Be fierce in pursuit of justice; and above all, give glory to Christ who makes all things possible. #newyearblessing

— Eugene Cho (@EugeneCho) January 2, 2014

 

4) Joke Accounts. My current favorite is RustBeltHipster, making fun of the “progressive” people like me who would reverse the white flight to the suburbs by gentrifying forgotten parts of Buffalo, NY.

Snow tires for my bike with one giant front wheel are pricey, but it’s worth it to be able to show off my steampunk cred year-round

— Rust Belt Hipster (@Buffalo_Hipster) December 19, 2013

…I think you have to be a certain generation and social location to get that joke.

Here is a description of how I use the platform:

1) I use Twitter as s a way to find interesting articles to read. Many news organizations, authors, and individual journalists share links to their work on their Twitter feed. If you have a favorite author, this can be an effective way to keep track of their corpus of work. Also, people tend to share the articles that they liked to read. Following people with similar interests as yourself can lead to interesting reading material as well. When my daughter was nursing constantly in the first few weeks of life, I found that having an iPhone and reading articles found from Twitter were great for avoiding going completely stir crazy. I used to follow Sarah Kendzior’s Twitter feed because she shares her published work there.

2) I use Twitter as a way to become immersed in a geographic area. When I first moved to Seattle, following the Twitter accounts of various news organizations helped me get a sense of what the lay of the land was much faster than if I had not been following those organizations. Right now I follow reporters from Syracuse.com, the Syracuse New Times, The Buffalo News, and some individual reporters. Following Artvoice columnist Alan Bedenko, known as @BuffaloPundit on Twitter, gives me a sense of what’s outrageous in the Buffalo political scene. That, and he’s funny.

3) On Twitter, I interact with individuals who share common interests with me. My follows include many #altac (Alternative Academics), Unitarian Universalists,  social justice activists, and, when I was vegan, I followed many vegan blogs. One of my favorite accounts, @Hsofia (tweets by a fascinating person), was found through affinity. @HSofia, for instance, is a poet, mother, UU and Seattleite currently in Colombia. I have learned a lot by reading the stuff she shares. Twitter is a big part in how I became internet-acquainted with Tim Atkins, of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. I read his fantastic blog, and followed him on Twitter.

4) “Nondirected Self Disclosure”, which is the sociological term for sharing your thoughts to anyone who feels inclined to listen.

5) Directed Self-disclosure, in particular to my brother- and sisters-in-law, cousins, old friends, current friends, and so forth. It is another messaging medium in that way.

6) I follow web cartoonists. For instance, Danielle Corsetto is just as funny on Twitter as she is with her comic, Girls With Slingshots. Some artists and performers, Wil Wheaton comes to mind, use their self and personality as part of their branding and marketing. Well, perhaps they aren’t that calculated in their online presence, but the effect can be the same. I would argue that Lady Gaga is a great example of being very calculated in her use of online presence to promote her music and performances.

7) I use Twitter to promote my website. This entails putting a link to this page on my profile and tweeting updates to individual posts.

Twitter is useful as a filter to interact with the rest of the internet. In the next post, I will describe its strongest and weakest uses.

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Twitter For Dummies

So, Twitter. Some people are really into it. I use it and like it quite a bit. Some folks summarily dismiss it out of hand, as all new things often are when they are newfangled in some way. This series of posts will discuss 1) What Twitter is, 2) How it could be used, and 3) Strengths and Limitations of this particular medium. It is my hope that you will have a broader understanding of the social world on Twitter, how it could be used, and ways to preserve your sanity in using it.

First: What Is Twitter?

Twitter is a microblogging platform where users submit posts called “tweets.” It is like Facebook, if all you had were status updates, or AOL Instant Messenger, if all you had were away messages and the conversations back and forth. You are limited to 140 characters (though Twitter truncates URLs so you can share them with comments). Tweets are aggregated into two types of feeds: a feed of tweets from those one is subscribed to (“following”) and a page where your own tweets are kept. You can follow someone and others can follow you, but the relationship is not inherently reciprocated as it is on Facebook. Lady Gaga has forty-one million followers, but follows less than 150,000 accounts.

You have the option of making your own posts private or public. If they are public, anyone can see them, including those who do not have a Twitter account. This is again, different than Facebook, where one must be logged into Facebook to see a Facebook account. If they are private, then only approved followers can see them.

Posts are organized through hashtags, which look #LikeThis. You can search with any word, hashtag or handle, but the hashtags are a way to categorize posts. Trends are defined by widely used hashtags. Handles are demarcated by @This. For instance, @Suey_Park started the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag as a rallying point for Asian American feminists, who, with their particular issues and insights, are often ignored. It took off like wildfire, because the ideas resonated with many people.  There were over 45,000 tweets.

Hashtags aren’t just used to rally around political causes. They can share jokes (for instance, #AddAWordRuinAMovie) or people’s thoughts about a common experience in real time, such as watching a television show (#Scandal). Sometimes a hashtag is used as meta-commentary on a post. I submit to you my husband making fun of an old habit of mine:

I'm sure they said that about beer at first too! RT @omnipotentmero: oh I am weeping… For the downfall of humanity. #vinegarIsnotabeverage

— Christine Slocum (@ChristineLSloc) January 1, 2014

I promise you that #VinegarIsNotABeverage will not become a trending topic.

That tweet is a good example of how interaction happens on Twitter. You write a post, or read one that you liked, so now what? Posts can be replied to, favorited, and retweeted. Favorites can be used as bookmarks or as small comments of affirmation or affinity. In my experience, there isn’t a set etiquette for its use. Retweets, meaning that you copy a post verbatim into your feed, can be done by either clicking the “Retweet” button, or copying the tweet and adding “RT” prior to the user’s handle. Sometimes folks, as I did, add a comment with the retweet so others have an idea of what I am replying to. If a user has a private account, as my husband does, the only way to retweet is “manually”, meaning the copy method. In the early days of twitter, that was the only way to retweet.

Twitter will sort conversations out of the feeds of the people who are not involved of the conversation, presuming that the @Handle is the first part of the tweet. For instance:

@MattSloc @thebolditalic Did you see #NotYourAsianSidekick?

— Christine Slocum (@ChristineLSloc) January 1, 2014

 

The only users who saw that in their feeds were those who follow both my brother, @MattSloc, and I. If we wanted other people in our feed to be privy to the conversation, then we would put a character prior to the @ in the handle. The custom is to use a period, so a tweet starts like this: .@ChristineLSloc.

You may also block people, which renders you invisible to the blocked while they are logged in, or permanently if you have a private feed.

Alright. Now you have a handle on the logistics of twitter. Tomorrow: Why would you want to use it?

 

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