MySpace and Facebook: How Racist Language Frames Social Media (and Why You Should Care)

By Guest Contributor Danah Boyd, cross-posted from BlogHer

Every time I dare to talk about race or class and MySpace & Facebook in the same breath, a public explosion happens. This is the current state of things.  Unfortunately, most folks who enter the fray prefer to reject the notion that race/class shape social media or that social media reflects bigoted attitudes than seriously address what’s at stake.  Yet, look around. Twitter is flush with racist language in response to the active participation of blacks on the site. Comments on YouTube expose deep-seated bigotry in uncountable ways. The n-word is everyday vernacular in MMORPGs. In short, racism and classism permeates every genre of social media out there, reflecting the everyday attitudes of people that go well beyond social media. So why can’t we talk about it?

Let me back up and explain the context for this piece … three years ago, I wrote a controversial blog post highlighting the cultural division taking shape.  Since then, I’ve worked diligently to try to make sense of what I first observed and ground it in empirical data.  In 2009, I built on my analysis in  “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”, a talk I gave at the Personal Democracy Forum.  Slowly, I worked to write an academic article called “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook” (to be published in a book called Digital Race Anthology, edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White).  I published a draft of this article on my website in December.  Then, on July 14, Christoper Mims posted a guest blog post at Technology Review entitled “Did Whites Flee the ‘Digital Ghetto’ of MySpace?” using my article as his hook.  I’m not sure why Mims wrote this piece now or why he didn’t contact me, but so it goes.

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White People Swim, and Black People Run? Race, Science, and Athletics

by Latoya Peterson

phelps swimSo I am up at five, again, but this time for a good cause. The Takeaway (NYC) is hosting a show on a new study that is causing tongues to wag:

Biomechanical researchers analysed 100 years of athletes’ heights, weights and running and swimming records, and demonstrated how the placement of one’s center of gravity affects one’s athletic performance. No big deal, right? People got jumpy, however, when the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics published the paper: “The Evolution of Speed in Athletics: Why the Fastest Runners are Black and Swimmers are White.”

We talk with two of the scientists behind the study: Dr. Adrian Bejan of Duke University and Edward Jones, of Howard University, about why their team embarked on this project, the science enlisted in their research, and the specifics of the study’s outcomes.

We also talk with Latoya Peterson of about why these sorts of studies make so many people squeamish, and whether, in a post-racial society, it makes sense to conduct studies on groups of people based on shared physical characteristics. What’s your take? Are race-based studies inherently racist?

The show is live at 6 AM ET – or, you can listen to the podcast and comment here a bit later in the day.


Just finished the show, and, as usual, the supertight constraints of radio mean a lot was left unsaid. Continue reading

links for 2010-07-27

  • "After all, once they heard the police's initial theory that C.J. had cut his sisters' throat—and his own—before setting the house on fire, the city's journalists ran with it. Over the last few days, multiple stories appeared in the city's papers hashing out C.J.'s various troubles at school and at home and speculating on how he had harbored these murderous feelings.

    "Those stories are now embarrassing, at best. In retrospect, reporters and editors should have been more skeptical of the wild theory, floated before autopsy results came in that contradicted it."

  • "Richard Prince, a media columnist for the Maynard Institute, which advocates for more diverse newsrooms and news coverage, said that stories suggesting reverse discrimination appeal to a faction of Americans who are disaffected toward the Obama administration and feel disadvantaged by the faltering economy.

    “"It comes down to the economic situation,' he said. 'When people are in these kinds of straits, they look for scapegoats; they lash out.'"

  • "Concern over the loss of languages and dialects in China is growing. In Tibet and Xinjiang, some ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs say the use of Mandarin as the official teaching language in schools has weakened the fluency of the local languages among many young people. Officials say mastering Mandarin is important for students to compete for jobs and university slots."
  • "Indonesia’s linguistic legacy is increasingly under threat as growing numbers of wealthy and upper-middle-class families shun public schools where Indonesian remains the main language but English is often taught poorly. They are turning, instead, to private schools that focus on English and devote little time, if any, to Indonesian.

    "For some Indonesians, as mastery of English has become increasingly tied to social standing, Indonesian has been relegated to second-class status. In extreme cases, people take pride in speaking Indonesian poorly."

  • "In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson's infamous 'wardrobe malfunction' (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase 'ripped the costume' while the other said 'the costume ripped." Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read "ripped the costume' blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines."
  • "Why do the Japanese draw themselves as white? You see that especially in manga and anime.

    "As it turns out, that is an American opinion, not a Japanese one. The Japanese see anime characters as being Japanese. It is Americans who think they are white. Why?  Because to them white is the Default Human Being."

Senator Jim Webb Aruges Against Affirmative Action, Says It Does Not Benefit Blacks

by Latoya Peterson
good is not enough cover
White privilege is a myth? Do tell…

In Jim Webb’s latest op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege“), he turns the traditional narrative for ending affirmative action on its head. Instead of using the same old racist platitudes, the Democrat from Virgina uses history and acknowledgment of structural inequality to propose a radical rethinking of government programs. But check the bait Webb uses:

I have dedicated my political career to bringing fairness to America’s economic system and to our work force, regardless of what people look like or where they may worship. Unfortunately, present-day diversity programs work against that notion, having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.

In an odd historical twist that all Americans see but few can understand, many programs allow recently arrived immigrants to move ahead of similarly situated whites whose families have been in the country for generations. These programs have damaged racial harmony. And the more they have grown, the less they have actually helped African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action as it was originally conceived.

My, my, my. Webb’s op-ed makes some very astute points but also trades on the idea that race is a zero-sum game. For this reason, the piece both succeeds and fails. Continue reading

“Oriental or Islamic” Immigrants Would Be “More Problematic”

by Guest Contributor Angry Asian Man, originally published at Angry Asian Man

cross and bible

This is an interesting Politico article on evangelical groups and the key role they are playing in getting immigration reform moving in Congress: Churches eye immigration’s upside.

While they’ve largely couched their arguments in moral terms, the fact of the matter is, they see Latino immigrants — both legal and undocumented — representing a significant population for proselytizing.

However, evangelical leaders are also advancing a more controversial line of argument: that immigration reform is practical or even desirable because Latinos subscribe to moral and religious values in line with social conservatives. Here’s a quote from Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention:

Some evangelicals have stirred the pot further by drawing a contrast between predominantly Christian immigrants to the U.S. and a largely Muslim migration to Western Europe.

“Realistically, I think it is probably more politically feasible to do this because the overwhelming majority of the people that we’re talking about come from a European civilization,” said Land. “It would be more problematic if we had 12 [million] to 14 million undocumented people and they were either Oriental or Islamic… Whether that is right or wrong, I’m just giving you a realistic political calculation.”

“When I talk to political and religious leaders in Europe, one of their great concerns is their migration is coming from non-Christian regions, whereas most of our immigration is coming from people who have a Christian tradition,” Anderson said.

First of all — Oriental? Seriously? Guess Land never got the memo.

What’s disturbing is the idea that these deeply held moral and religious convictions that are motivating the push for immigration reform could suddenly shift if we were talking about immigration from somewhere else.

In that case, why do I suspect they’ll find some twisted reasoning to justify an organized effort to block the immigration of “Oriental or Islamic” people?

Looking at ‘Why Misogynists Make Great Informants’

By Thea Lim, cross-posted from Bitch Magazine

A lot of folks have been talking about Courtney Desiree Morris’ article in make/shift, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements.” I read the whole thing over at the INCITE! blog. Starting from a discussion of Brandon Darby, an FBI informant who infiltrated groups protesting the Republican National Convention in 2009, Morris suggests that left wing movements are easy to infiltrate because they are uncritical of themselves. The uncriticalness that allows informants to infiltrate as long as they can appear devoted to the cause, is what also allows gender violence to go unchecked. Morris’ article provides definite food for thought, in terms of what we will put up with “in service of the movement” that we would never put up with elsewhere.

Morris says:

Maybe it isn’t that informants are difficult to spot but rather that we have collectively ignored the signs that give them away. To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements. Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence [1] as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Continue reading

links for 2010-07-26

  • After 600 Aboriginal women and girls go missing or are found murdered in Canada, the federal government decides to throw-a-bone and give $10 million dollars. In March, the Canadian Minister of Justice budgeted $10 million over two years to address the issue of murdered and missing women in Canada, however, they have yet to figure out how to use the money.Many justice organizations such as Amnesty International and Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) have made recommendations. Both organizations suggest that the $10 million is not enough to support the decades of injustice for Aboriginal women and girls.
  • "To find a detainee, the searcher must type in the person's country of origin and either their full name or alien registration number — a unique nine-digit number given to anyone who applies for immigration benefits or in deportation proceedings. With that information, the computer will show the detainee's location, along with contact and visiting information of the center and the local immigration enforcement office.
    "Coven said the agency is getting out the word about the program through community organizations, immigration field offices and the media. Brochures that explain how to use the system are available in nine languages, including Mandarin, Russian, Somali and Spanish."
  • "Supervisors reportedly created the game and labeled the categories 'pickle smokers' for men they thought were gay and 'our gang' for African-Americans. According to an air marshal who wrote a letter about the complaints to Florida's two senators, the board also targeted Hispanics, women, veterans, and air marshals who had filed discrimination complaints against their supervisors."
  • "On the winner-takes-all, scurrilous, new-media battlefield, there's no room for political naiveté or acquiescence. Frankly, it's embarrassing that the leader of a prominent civil rights organization allowed conservative operatives to influence his decision to demean a socially conscious black woman. To admit he was ''snookered'' by Fox News is akin to being surprised that the Ku Klux Klan's has a distaste for black people. Judging blacks ''without all the facts'' is a tepid response from a black president who doesn't seem to have the stomach for racial confrontations."
    (tags: race politics)
  • "Ms. Stewart, a single mom working two jobs, didn’t think the process was fair. She had heard widespread reports of wealthy families preparing their children for the kindergarten gifted test with $90 workbooks, $145-an-hour tutoring and weekend 'boot camps.'

    "The owner of one Manhattan tutoring company, Bright Kids NYC, says the parents of the 120 children her staff tutored spent an average of $1,000 on test prep for their 4-year-olds."

  • "So he’s an immigrant, he married a local, and he converted. Ok, fine, just like almost every other candidate we’ve blogged about here. But the kicker is just how much the “Islamization of America” is a part of his campaign. He talks about “Universal Jihad” “The Islamist Challenge” and “Sharia Law” on his site. He states he doesn’t believe there is an “Indian-Pakistani problem… just a universal jihadist problem.” He further expounds by basically saying that being Muslim and being American are inherently antithetical and for the sake of the American Constitution we need to get rid of people that follow the Quran. […]

    Here’s the kicker (like that wasn’t enough). Also running for Congress a neighboring district over for the Republican party is a Desi Muslim candidate: Mahmood Sabri is running for Congress in the 1st District in Tennessee. How’s that for some party solidarity and united messaging?"

  • "It is important to be clear–about what is being proposed, by whom, and why, in the French context specifically–before jumping on the French "Ban the Burqa" bandwagon. This ban is against wearing the face veil any time anywhere in public–not just in public institutions, banks, government offices, or police stations, but walking down the street, going to the neighbourhood park, window shopping, giving the baby a stroll, taking out the garbage, anywhere. Transgressors are subject to fines, and then further legal penalties. […]

    Two constitutional reviews have determined that the proposed ban against the burqa is contrary to the guarantee of personal freedom in the French Constitution."

Mad Men: 4th Season, Same M.O.

by Latoya Peterson

Modified Mad Men

Mad Men is back, and while I’ve given up all hope of a character of color with any kind of context, I still want to know what happens to Sal (I know, I know, he’s written out), Joan, and Peggy.

(Yes, I know Mad Men is about a bunch of white people in the era of segregation. No that does not let the writers off the hook for this bootleg ass characterization. I’ve written pages and pages on this, but I’ll sum it up in two words: Rachel Menken.  She provided context without becoming a main character.  That’s all we’re asking for people.)

Don argues with his new (and ethnic?) maid Cecelia.  My friends and I couldn’t come to a conclusion if she was coded Italian or Puerto Rican, with more votes for Italian.

Characters of Color may be out of luck in this episode, but there was an errant civil rights reference: Andrew Goodman, one of the civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, was referenced by Don’s Betty-clone on the date. She mentioned they were killed, but doesn’t go into the details.  The three workers (Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner) were lynched by the members of the Ku Klux Klan, but the murders were facilitated by local law enforcement. It was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, one in which the nation had to face the facts that the racial climate  in America led to the deaths of three idealistic twenty-one year olds, who were murdered and stuffed into a dam.

However, the reference struck me as a bit strange.  Many American Jews were fixtures in the civil rights movement, and the “Freedom Summer” event was reported to have one of the highest levels of participation by American Jews.  However, in Mad Men, most discussion of Jews is framed as anti-Semitic jokes,  open curiosity, or thinly veiled contempt.  Don’s companion mentions Goodman’s identity lightly, as if she were noting an interesting non-sequitur about someone who died in a freak accident, not race related violence. While she was uncomfortable, it was more random table conversation than any actual reflection or fear.  But the scene did remind me of something – It is important to note that while I often point to Rachel Menken as an onscreen representation of being able to give voice to minority characters in the style of Mad Men‘s created world, her appearance began and ended in season one. And since then, the lens has continued to close, leaving less and less room for the voice of the “other” to be heard.  Sal is gone; the alleged “greek chorus” (Hollis), who people seemed to hope would have a larger role, is back in the old building; Don is selling the house and employed a new housekeeper, leaving Carla’s fate uncertain; and even the extras appear to be on a fade.

But no worries – through small references and slight of hand, the writers will allude hey, we know there were black people then. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes.  And where there is so much potential to develop plots that deal with race, the attitudes of the writers are eerily current.  It’s okay to remember the past, but it is verboten to apply historical events to our current realities.

Remembering the past is easy – it’s learning from our history (not erasing it, not sanitizing it) that’s hard.