Doing Antiracism Wrong At Jezebel

By Guest Contributor Gene Demby, cross-posted from PostBourgie

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 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 ofMichael “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 write 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.

  • Anonymous

    Many of those who had a positive response to the Jezebel thing seemed to especially like that it was done to kids. Maybe this only a salient point to me, because I saw the Jezebel article cross posted on someone’s blog along with some of her own musings about how the kids likely learned these things at home. We have an interesting obsession with parenting in this country. We blame parents for everything from autism to racism. Yet, despite being a culture that says that everything a child does is the parents’ responsibilty, we nevertheless feel quite comfortable publicly punishing other people’s children. I guess the next f’ed up defense of Jezebel will be that we’ve reached some kind of racial parity because the “Kids gone wild, where are the parents/schools” sensational journalism narrative that is usually deployed to demonize people of color from wilding teens to zoot suit riots is being deployed to demonize white families? Yeah…I think I have to agree that the Jezebel thing was neither good journalism nor good anti-racism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/njames.eastling James Eastling

    That’s kind of thing, right? Post-racism, the idea that we’re beyond racism because we see racist trends in various media and therefore we couldn’t possibly be racist? It’s like post-feminism, post-colonialism, and so on. The very fact that someone thinks we’re beyond begs the question, “Are we really past this?” and upon investigation shows that we’re not. As for shaming and educating, I think shaming minors for the irrational disgust of other ethnicities, especially of successful ethnicities shows a very narrow-minded approach to solving the problem or racism. I think a more apt way of getting young people to start thinking about what they say online is simply to phrase in the terms of consequences for your actions. We are long past the days where you could say what you wanted on the Interwebs without consequences. Colleges will use Internet search engines and pay nominal fees to retain information about your activity online in order to ascertain what your character is. Kids need to start thinking more seriously about their actions online because what they say, even if they might not understand the repercussions of racial slurs, is crucial.

    But I don’t think that addresses the underlying issue of racism. I don’t know if there’s a quick-fix and I find racial sensitivity training highly suspect (then again, I’m not sure everyone has the opportunities I’ve had to study racism, gentrification, and such).

  • http://www.facebook.com/njames.eastling James Eastling

    That’s kind of thing, right? Post-racism, the idea that we’re beyond racism because we see racist trends in various media and therefore we couldn’t possibly be racist? It’s like post-feminism, post-colonialism, and so on. The very fact that someone thinks we’re beyond begs the question, “Are we really past this?” and upon investigation shows that we’re not. As for shaming and educating, I think shaming minors for the irrational disgust of other ethnicities, especially of successful ethnicities shows a very narrow-minded approach to solving the problem or racism. I think a more apt way of getting young people to start thinking about what they say online is simply to phrase in the terms of consequences for your actions. We are long past the days where you could say what you wanted on the Interwebs without consequences. Colleges will use Internet search engines and pay nominal fees to retain information about your activity online in order to ascertain what your character is. Kids need to start thinking more seriously about their actions online because what they say, even if they might not understand the repercussions of racial slurs, is crucial.

    But I don’t think that addresses the underlying issue of racism. I don’t know if there’s a quick-fix and I find racial sensitivity training highly suspect (then again, I’m not sure everyone has the opportunities I’ve had to study racism, gentrification, and such).

  • Anonymous

    I also think Jezebel should have just posted these kids’ tweets and their identities and left it at there. Going and complaining to their schools about it will most likely not accomplish anything, because the schools might not feel like censuring these kids over their tweets falls under their jurisdiction. Also, if (and that’s a big IF) these kids did get punished by their schools, they’ll most likely not have learned anything from the incident. Instead they’ll just continue to harbor these ugly racist thoughts in their heads, rather than publicly posting them next time. If there was a way to engage some of these kids in some serious conversation about issues surrounding racism, that would have been a better way to get through to them.

  • Anonymous

    I also think Jezebel should have just posted these kids’ tweets and their identities and left it at there. Going and complaining to their schools about it will most likely not accomplish anything, because the schools might not feel like censuring these kids over their tweets falls under their jurisdiction. Also, if (and that’s a big IF) these kids did get punished by their schools, they’ll most likely not have learned anything from the incident. Instead they’ll just continue to harbor these ugly racist thoughts in their heads, rather than publicly posting them next time. If there was a way to engage some of these kids in some serious conversation about issues surrounding racism, that would have been a better way to get through to them.

  • Cricket

    Thank you so much for writing this! I read Jezebel a lot, and while I’m
    grateful for the work that they’ve done in terms of popularizing (at
    least a limited vision) of feminism, when I read that article it really
    turned my stomach. I couldn’t articulate it as well as you did. I’ve
    gotten into arguments with friends where they keep insisting that the
    kids “deserved” it and accusing me of defending these rasist little
    twerps which NO WAY NO HOW. But an important point for me – aside from
    any discussion of what true justice would be for the kids’ reprehensible
    actions – is that Jezebel policing race on the Internet seems much much
    more like Jezebel trying to win some quick points for not being racist
    than it seems like an actual attempt by a journalist or activist to
    truly make a change for the better in our national dialogue about race.
    And you said it best “Shame has serious drawbacks as a tool for curbing
    racism because so much of the way racism works isn’t “personal.””
    Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      That’s the feeling I got from Jezebel’s actions too! It’s like they want to be seen as cool “white ally” anti-racist hipsters or something through this action, especially since their past (and even present) posts on race have often devolved into posters either derailing or outright dismissing race issues altogether.

  • Anonymous

    See also here: http://hellothereracists.tumblr.com/ EDIT: Most on there seem to be high school as well… so also problematic.

  • Anonymous

    See also here: http://hellothereracists.tumblr.com/ EDIT: Most on there seem to be high school as well… so also problematic.

  • Anonymous

    There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the Jezebel posts (mostly for naught, IMO), but can someone answer this question: what is doing antiracism right, exactly, when it comes to racist teenagers? FWIW, I think calling them out is likely to be more effective than a fireside chat. The latter presumes they didn’t know what they did was wrong, and you’d have to be extremely naive to believe that.

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  • http://snikkissay.blogspot.com/ SnikkiG

    Overzealous antiracism aside (and I never thought I’d say that), young people need to learn that they can’t post inflammatory things with their real names attached to their usernames and not expect real-world backlash. That’s what this is REALLY about: understanding that the Internet is not your slam-book or journal. If your posts are visible to the public, you are inviting people to know those things about you; and if your real name and your school is information you include in your public profile, you are INVITING people to associate your posts with your real life persona.

    Growing up in the age of the Internet, I was taught not to tell my real name, my school, my phone number, my address, my location, my place of work, none of that. Now that’s all Facebook and Twitter seem to want to know about me. And *kids these days* are not taking those same precautions online. It’s not like Jezebel did some heavy-duty investigation here; those kids VOLUNTEERED that information about themselves. And they should have acted more responsibly. The moral of the story isn’t ‘Out the racist kids!’; it’s ‘Don’t post racist tweets with your full name attached to them.’ No patience (or anonymity!) for teens too dumb/ignorant to know how to troll…

  • Anonymous

    i actually felt the same way about this article as i did about jezebel’s “guide to hipster racism” article. jezebel loves to go for the cheap shots to act like a reliable voice challenging racism, sort of in some kind of desperate urgency to not seem racist, with very little regard to how they are affecting the dialogue. i guess when your life isn’t deeply affected by how truthfully and responsibly that dialogue plays out, you can afford to be so cavalier/ridiculous.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jane-Laplain/100002900807756 Jane Laplain

    I see your point, much bigger picture being missed here and all that, I agree. But to paraphrase: If not now, when? If not these racists, then which racists? Jezebel definitely hurt these kids more than they helped any antiracist cause.. but … at least THESE kids have been put on blast. At least THESE kids won’t be shrugged off as merely a part of a bigger problem that nobody will ever get around to solving because there’s always a bigger fish to fry, always a bigger picture to consider, always a reason to talk about what should be done to resist casual racism and how best to resist it but never actually getting around to resisting it because good god somebody over there is resisting it wrong!

    • Anonymous

      Oy.

      let’s try this again.

      Jezebel searches for “Nigger + Obama” on twitter. Is shocked to find racist shit.

      Jezebel publishes said tweets, including names of minors, which is a huge deviation from journalism standards. Jez commenters pat themselves on the back for not being the kind of people who call Obama a “nigger.”

      Jezebel then calls the schools of all the kids it can identify, and demands to know what actions the schools may be taking against the kids who sent the racist tweets. It puts all of their information out there.

      Again: if these kids’ names are associated with racist tweets on Twitter, that’s something they brought on themselves.

      But what you and a bunch of people seem to be arguing is that a media organization calling their schools and reporting even more information about these kids serves some vaguely progressive purpose, when this is really just about folks wanting to punch a bunch of asshole kids in the face for saying ugly shit.

      And we all hate racists, right? So clearly all of this is inbounds.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t really generate much animus for this situation. Is putting these people on blast going to put a dent in institutionalized racism? No. But every time people want to claim casual racism is a thing of the past or a rare occurrence left to old, backwards, rednecks and an avalanche of fools get on Twitter or Facebook and start writing the most blatantly racist drivel since David Duke, I love that we can show otherwise. I personally get pleasure out of seeing popular websites put these people on front street. Even if they are minors. Especially minors and other young people, because folks like to claim that the children, teens, and young adults of today don’t let race factor into their lives like the “older generation”. Some of these people are actually suffering consequences for their internet thug bigotry. I say bring on the parade of racists.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t really generate much animus for this situation. Is putting these people on blast going to put a dent in institutionalized racism? No. But every time people want to claim casual racism is a thing of the past or a rare occurrence left to old, backwards, rednecks and an avalanche of fools get on Twitter or Facebook and start writing the most blatantly racist drivel since David Duke, I love that we can show otherwise. I personally get pleasure out of seeing popular websites put these people on front street. Even if they are minors. Especially minors and other young people, because folks like to claim that the children, teens, and young adults of today don’t let race factor into their lives like the “older generation”. Some of these people are actually suffering consequences for their internet thug bigotry. I say bring on the parade of racists.

    • Anonymous

      Whoa at this strawman. Who, exactly, is claiming that casual racism is a thing of the past?

      I personally get pleasure out of seeing popular websites put these people on front street. Even if they are minors.

      Schadenfreude seems to be a big part of what’s motivating the put-them-on-blast contingent. And again, I’m not advocating that people who say horrible things should be shielded from the consequences of it. I’m arguing that a hugely influential media organization like Gawker Media should not be calling these kids’ schools.

      I’m not sure how familiar you are with Jez, but they’ve never been a site that cared all that much about antiracism. (Latoya, the editrix here at The R, did a writing stint there for a while; you should read the comments sections of her posts to get a sense of the obliviousness that thrives there.) What’s happening in the comments sections of these posts is that a bunch of people who are not race-conscious at all are patting themselves on the back because they possess the desire to punch some racist kids in the face. Like, look at how enlightened we all are!

      But every time people want to claim casual racism is a thing of the past or a rare occurrence left to old, backwards, rednecks and an avalanche of fools get on Twitter or Facebook and start writing the most blatantly racist drivel since David Duke…

      Couple things. Why is anyone surprised that searching for “nigger” on Twitter yields a lot of racist noise? And from what this study on the location of racist tweeters around Election Day found (using the “nigger”/”monkey” + “Obama” search terms that Jez apparently did) is that the there were about 395. At a time when millions tweets have been fired off. That’s a parade?

      Two questions: if an idiot yells “nigger” in the woods — or in the recesses of the Twitterverse — does it make a sound? And while making racists feel bad is pleasurable, does it accomplish anything?

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  • Anonymous

    I completely agree. I thought what Jezebel did was a really bad idea. “Let’s out racist teens, cause that will make them magically not racist… also: they will suddenly be mature educated adults. And of course their high schools couldn’t be the source of the problem in the first place.”

  • Anonymous

    Alright, I see where you’re coming from here, but to be honest, I can’t bring myself to have any sympathy for the kids. At all. :/

  • Jay

    I had the same reaction when I saw the Jezebel piece. First of all their attitude seemed to be shock — shock! — that such things are said on Twitter. Actually this and worse is happening all the time every day; if it shocks the people at Jezebel maybe they aren’t paying attention. Then going out of their way to single out these people and encourage them to be shamed, again implies that they are special outlying cases and if we just “fixed” these particular individuals (by doing what, exactly?), racism would somehow be over. To me it seems like a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

    • Anonymous

      Jezebel has been like this for a few years. As the editorial staff changed, the readership changed.

      It really hasn’t been for the better. If it’s an article involving race, and Dodai isn’t the author, I know to not even bother reading it.