Doing Antiracism Wrong At Jezebel.

After President Obama was re-elected last Tuesday, there was the predictable racist apoplexy from the knuckle-draggers on Twitter who wanted to voice their disgust.  It was vile and stupid, but it’s hard to argue that spitting “nigger!” into Twitter’s river of digitized id has any real-world consequence. All you could really do is laugh at the horrible spelling and twisted logic and K.I.M.

But the day after the election, Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey decided to put some of those offenders on blast in a slideshow, in what was presumably an attempt to shame the tweeters. (Morrisey left their names and Twitter handles unobscured.)  There was something about both the execution and tone of that post and the comments section that felt both cynical and self-congratulatory — look at how not-racist we all are, guys! 1 And perhaps not coincidentally, this kind of stuff clicks really well.

But what Morrisey did later in the week was even more self-aggrandizing, if not completely unethical. After locating some of the teenagers who went on their ignorant tirades, she contacted their schools to inquire if administrators knew about their students’ Twitter comments, inquired about their schools codes of conduct, and needled them to determine how, exactly, they might go about punishing those students. Many of the schools said they knew about the tweets, but most understandably declined to specify whether or how they were disciplining their students. A bunch of the kids deleted their accounts. Others said, unconvincingly, that they’d been hacked.

“We contacted their school’s administrators with the hope that, if their educators were made aware of their students’ ignorance, perhaps they could teach them about racial sensitivity,” Morrissey told Double X.

Word? Really? What would “teaching them about racial sensitivity” look like to her in practice? Why does Morrissey assume these kids’ schools are even equipped to help them unlearn their racism? (Because if those schools were any good at it…) Why is that her (or Jezebel’s) responsibility to make sure that happens? How does a heavily trafficked website tattling on a bunch of ignorant-ass teenagers amount to effective anti-racism? Obviously, those kids shouldn’t be protected from the consequences of their speech — that’s part of the “free speech” tradeoff — but this strikes me as different than, say, alerting someone at a corporation that an employee of theirs was publicly saying racist things.

There’s been some comparison between this and Adrian Chen‘s much-discussed outing on Gawker of Michael “Violentacrez” Brutsch, the notorious and influential Reddit troll. (Jezebel and Gawker have the same parent company.)  But that doesn’t quite work. In posting voyeuristic creepshots of underage girls and creating an environment amenable to their posting,  Brutsch was actively violating scores of very specific people, even though his skeeviness was nominally legal. It was also protected and emboldened by Reddit’s employees — this grown-ass man’s  personal misogyny was given institutional weight and sanction by one of the Internet’s most popular websites. There are much more serious consequences for people on the business end of his animus than there are for a bunch of 16-year-olds with a handful of Twitter followers. I think this also holds true for why the outing of Stephanie Grace, the Harvard Law School student who argued that black people were natively intellectually inferior to whites, was justifiable. At the time, Grace had just landed a prestigious clerkship on an appellate court, which means, like Brutsch, there were potential serious real-world implications for her opinions.

But the more vexing problem with  Morrissey’s stunt — and this is a thread that runs through a lot of our public conversations about race —  is that it bolsters the idea that racism is a terrible personal failing that can be corrected through sufficient public shaming. This notion of racists-as-evil is so  pervasive that few people who readily espouse bigoted beliefs would recognize those ideas as racist;  unsurprisingly, people don’t like to think themselves monsters. And so our conversations about racist behavior and racism writ large get frustratingly bogged down in trivia about how churchgoing Suzie is or Connor’s friendly rapport with his Hispanic teammates. The burden of proof for racism has become so high that  even people who hang effigies of the black president don’t think they rate.

Shame has serious drawbacks as a tool for curbing racism because so much of the way racism works isn’t “personal.” My hunch is that the number of New York City police officers who said something racist to the 687,000 people they stopped and frisked last year — nine out of 10 of whom were black or Hispanic — is actually pretty small. Their personal feelings may  matter but are, to a large extent, besides the point.

1I should cop to being biased here; I’ve been reading Jezebel for a minute now, and whenever there’s a thread about race and its messiness, it is invariably derailed by folks by people who, like, have freckles and so totally know what it’s like to feel other-ed by our mass media and the larger society. Their commenters have very much earned their reputation as a wellspring of #racefail, which is another reason they shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

AN UPDATE FOR CLARITY (11/13/12): The first Jezebel post makes me a little uneasy as journalist; I agree that these kids put this stuff out there for public consumption, but there are lots of very good reasons why newspapers shy away from identifying minors in stories absent some compelling interest in doing so.  But this is a story about  Twitter behavior and their names are in the tweets. I do think there are some obvious questions about the newsworthiness of the shocking discovery that Twitter-searching “nigger” will yield racist-ass stuff; you could literally do that on any day — and especially on a day on which a prominent African American is in the news.

The second post, though, goes beyond just being ethically questionable. There’s a big, big difference between a journalism outlet reporting on a story in which there was some community backlash against a bunch of students who tweeted racist stuff and a journalistic outlet very much creating the story and itself leading the backlash.

Also, a lot of responses on Twitter seem to suggest that  I’m apologizing for these racist kids. Which, I mean…hello, I’m G.D., and this is PostBourgie, and you’re clearly very new around here. Do have a seat and stick around. In fact, have several seats.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

31 comments to Doing Antiracism Wrong At Jezebel.

  • April

    Y’know, I actually have no problem with either of the Jezebel posts. Will they somehow change those students’ hearts and minds? Probably not. But I disagree that those students’ tweets are inconsequential. They have very real consequences for their peers of color, who likely not only saw the tweets in question but are probably also subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle racism from those same students. I don’t think that should be dismissed as just a “rite of passage” for students of color, and I think such behavior deserves to be called out.

    (This wasn’t addressed in the OP, but I must add, I don’t care one ounce about this ruining the students’ reputations, because they should have thought about that before posting racist nonsense online. And yes, as high schoolers, they’re old enough to understand the consequences and deal with them.)

    You’re right that shame won’t dismantle structural racism–blogging won’t, either–but maybe public humiliation will at least force some of these students to reconsider what they post online. If that makes the social environment even the slightest bit better for their peers of color, then to me, it’s worth it.

    • There a bunch of assumptions you gotta make for this argument — that these kids even have peers of color or that they have relationships with these peers of color. I’m not being flip here: if you and I go to a high school with 1300 students and we’re in different cliques and we never interact, does my racism/homophobia/misogyny manifest itself in your life? (This is only sorta rhetorical. I’m genuinely curious here.)

      I don’t think that should be dismissed as just a “rite of passage” for students of color, and I think such behavior deserves to be called out.

      You’re right. It shouldn’t be dismissed. But who does the calling out and how it’s done matters. A lot.

      • April

        I’m not being flip here: if you and I go to a high school with 1300 students and we’re in different cliques and we never interact, does my racism/homophobia/misogyny manifest itself in your life?

        I’d say yes. It manifests itself through alienation, which isn’t conducive to good social or educational outcomes.

        To be honest, and to address the rest of your (and Lo.La’s) point, I guess I’m rather pessimistic about whether having a constructive conversation with these kids would be effective. If you’re spewing racist stuff at age 16, it’s not because you don’t know better. (Seriously, what would be their response? “Sorry, I didn’t know ‘nigger’ was a bad word”?) So I’m not opposed to them being publicly humiliated. It’s what they deserve, frankly.

        • So this is kind of nakedly about you wanting to make mean people cry? Okay. I disagree, but fine. There’s no reason why that should be the business of a national news outlet.

    • Lo.La

      I agree that the racists tweets are important and consequential. And that we need to think about creating a safe environment for the kid’s peers of color. But I have to disagree with you on doing it via public humiliation, because that *is* shaming. Shame constricts. It crumbles people into the smallest, darkest place where they can’t hear anything and they can’t learn anything. And even if after shaming, the kids acted like they weren’t ashamed, just to prove a point or something, they *still* wouldn’t be able to learn anything, b/c they’d be so hell bent on proving themselves not ashamed. This isn’t to say shame isn’t going to or shouldn’t come up as white teens and adults develop awareness around this. But to deliberately put them in that place will just shut the whole conversation down.

      • But I have to disagree with you on doing it via public humiliation, because that *is* shaming. Shame constricts. It crumbles people into the smallest, darkest place where they can’t hear anything and they can’t learn anything. And even if after shaming, the kids acted like they weren’t ashamed, just to prove a point or something, they *still* wouldn’t be able to learn anything, b/c they’d be so hell bent on proving themselves not ashamed.

        And the teenagers’ response to this so far bears this out.

  • mike

    honest, i don’t get the backlash to the jezebel stunts at all. and i actively despise jezebel and gawker and their brand of obnoxious and cynical “in your face” journalism.

    but this instance, i have no problem. i have no doubt it was self congratulatory, but still, u can’t say racist vile crap, against the damn President of all people, and not get called on it. i take your larger point about institutional racism and racist laws, which are indeed more important. but these bratty kids spewing hate, they damn sure deserved to be shamed. this is the age you need to knock the hate out of them, before they morth into the kind of white resentment for life people they are on track to be. this is the same stuff that was spewed on Opie and Anthony post election, and they make a career out of it. nip this crap in the bud as early as possible.

  • Honestly, I don’t see the anti racism. These kids were trying to be provocative, and Jezebel wrote a provocative story about it to increase their page views. As I was reading the story I thought it was weird, and stopped reading it. I’ve only revisited the story because of this blog. I know I can probably look this up myself. But is Jezebel that popular outside of NYC? Isn’t it kind of a joke?

  • Jezebel is attempting to drum up page views at this kids expense. I don’t see it as anti racism at all.

  • Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from being taken publicly to task for your own public statements. I’m all for the public name and shame, as long as they only use information that the tweeters made available (their username and avatar, nothing more.)
    But to actually dig into these people’s personal information in an attempt to get the schools, which should have zero authority in the matter, involved is beyond absurd. You can shame someone for their words if you want, but to insist that they should be punished by an entity other than Twitter itself (in the form of deleted tweets, account suspension, and account deletion. The right to freedom of speech does not mean the right to be given a forum to do so,) is absolutely unacceptable. Like it or not, these people have a freedom of speech that, outside of school, the school has no authority to deny.
    This, sadly, isn’t even the worst thing I’ve seen from Jezebel. Jezebel is the same site that published an article mocking a male rape victim by, among other things, calling him “sexhausted,” and framing the whole thing as if female on male sexual assault was somehow funny.

  • Red

    I was one of the people who left a comment on the original Jezebel article, and I wanted to apologize if it came off as though I was saying “look at how not-racist we all are, guys!”. I said “these tweets hurt me deeply”. That doesn’t mean I can’t be racist. In fact, I think the default for a White person, is racism. We must unlearn it, but it is a lifelong process. If we aren’t actively fighting against our culture, we are participating in racism and are being racist.

    So I am sorry if I was offensive through my comment. I’m still learning how to unpack my privilege.

  • lauren

    I’m with them on posting the tweets, even without redacting the names. If those kids had wanted their racist comments to be a secret, they would have locked them or not posted them on the internet. it’s an important lesson. But, and this is a huge “but,” those kids’ schools have no right – NONE – to punish them for anything they did outside of school, and even less to punish them for something they said outside of school. High schools already act like they have complete control over their students’ lives, like those students don’t have any kind of rights because they’re minors. (see zero tolerance as applied to art projects & student papers) I’m not down with Jezebel endorsing the way we treat kids, even racist kids, and I’m definitely not down with them heckling school officials (who have enough to deal with) to punish kids for things they don’t have the jurisdiction to punish them for. Thanks for being the first commentato I’ve seen on my side.

  • Thank you for writing this. I was extremely upset with the Jezebel articles, especially their titles. And I have kept asking myself why the OSUhaters site which exposes xenophobic and racist OSU students tweets has not given me the same discomfort. The points you highlight in the article help me understand the difference. OSUhaters is engaging the student population at one school to face deep racism in an effort to start conversation which would hopefully start to change the climate on campus. However, the Jezebel columns felt like sensationalism and nothing more, spreading hateful speech with no context or framework for truly engaging discussion.

    Honestly, it was so painful to see all those tweets compiled together. I also have to believe that anyone who posts racist comments online with their picture and real name wouldn’t mind being made semi-famous for an instant on a popular website. I’m mixed race and have been mistaken as white often enough to know that when people with racist views feel they can’t speak openly, they save the hate speech for when they think they are in like company. Public shaming doesn’t solve the problem, it forces it behind closed doors.

  • Communist

    Morrissey didn’t assume that the schools would be equipped to help these students unlearn their racism. Am I right to read an implicit criticism of activism aimed at achieving small, unlikely benefits into your piece? When engaged in by the privileged its fertile ground for self congratulation and could crowd out better work, but most activism has a low payoff.

    What are ways to combat the racist meanness of individuals without feeding the narrative that racism is “about” this? She should’ve framed this as an attack on kyriarchy’s assumptions about how much tolerance should be extended to offesnsive speech and a demand for institutional accountability. I think the campaign at the University of Florida in the aftermath of a recent blackface party does a good job.

  • Peca

    I just want to say as someone with tons of freckles, I totally misread your footnote about freckles and actually thought at first you were saying ‘god all those asinine fakers have FRECKLES’ as an ad hominem attack on freckles and I had a surge of freckly rage!

    …then I re-read more closely and actually understood your point. I really hope you made that exaggeration up to be funny (it was) and that there are NOT actually people out there who have tried to equate having freckles to problems faced by people of color…because that would make me sad for humanity. I have never not once ever faced prejudice or had any discernible negative effect on my life because I’m covered in small brown dots, and to state that having wildly uneven melanin gives you insight into the experience of brown and black people in America is ridiculous.

    anyway, yay freckles.

    • I’m not kidding. I’ve read someone express that exact sentiment; I believe it was in a discussion about dolls for little girls.

    • Winn

      As a long-time Jezebel reader and commenter with an extreme love-hate relationship with the site, I can attest that many readers have equated having red hair, curly hair, freckles, and even wearing glasses with the experience of brown and black people in America. Jezebel is full of very smart but often very sheltered and blinkered people congratulating themselves on their own obtuseness. But there are also some very smart woc and allies who won’t concede the ground completely to the clueless, which is the only reason I hang in there.

  • MissObrien

    I agree with everything you’ve said. Here’s why: The internet is such a great connector of people and instead of connecting these kids to views outside their lives and challenging them to be better people, all Jezebel did was shame them. A teenager with their back up against the wall isn’t learning; they’re reacting impulsively. Had Tracie taken the tack that she could reach out to these kids and talk to them, then maybe we could have had a teachable moment and a real story. I also can’t shake the thought that some of these kids are just learning to be subtle with their racism as a result (I also think it’s ethically wrong for a journalist to demand that the subjects of her story be punished.)

  • I would argue that it is the rest of us. who are doing anti-racism wrong, What these tweets show is that USA is not educating teenagers on social systems of domination like racism. There is no will to do so. Without that will, interventions are needed to force the sensemaking, not only of the students, but of the parents, teachers, etc and White society at large.

    Racism thrives to this day, precisely because no-one is willing to take a strong stand. They deplore it, but pass it on to their children.

    My blog on this http://qhabhuti.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/liberal-mindset-that-sustains-racism-social-shaming/

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