Home > Uncategorized > Everyday Racism and Social Networks

Everyday Racism and Social Networks

Everyone is a little bit racist, a little bit sexist. Mahzarin Benaji can prove it. When she asks people, “Do these two words go together?”, most people will click “yes” slightly quicker if shown “man” and “scientist” than “woman” and “scientist.” Even women scientists. You can do the same experiment for racism. It’s not that a few evil people are sexist or racist—we all are, to some degree.

Despite my awareness that everyone is a little bit racist, I am still astonished by the regular demonstration of that racism on the website Nextdoor.com. Nextdoor is a discussion site for people in a local neighborhood. Members share recommendations for plumbers, discuss traffic problems, and offer items for sale. It’s a nice site. A key topic of discussion is always about security. There have been a series of burglaries in my neighborhood recently, so residents are on the alert for “suspicious” people. And evidently any African American in our neighborhood may possibly be “suspicious,” according to my neighbors. Here’s yesterday’s example:

This morning was dog was ill. so I took her outside around 5:15 AM. I saw a car driving slowly … and stopping. The car stopped twice, a tall African American man wearing a dark sweatshirt dark pants and got out, kept his head lights on and walked up towards a house with his cell phone out. Then, walked back down to his car, got in, and continued driving slowly down the street. He kept his headlights on the entire time, even when the car was parked in the street. The car looked to be a beige/gold Mitsubishi. I was half asleep when I saw all of this and realized later I should have called 9-1-1. Just wanted folks to be aware.

Does that sound suspicious to you? Fortunately, another Nextdoor member pointed out:

Pretty sure he delivers the paper- i see him out several times a week- better safe than sorry though

I would laugh if I didn’t feel like crying. Because this happens all the time. Would people have worried that a man delivering papers was suspicious if he were white? I can’t prove that race was a factor here. But most of these incidents are about people of color. And it keeps happening.

In an incident last year, a mother posted an urgent alert that there was an attempted abduction of her seven-year-old daughter, who had been out walking the dog. There was a white van, following a white pickup truck. Right as her daughter was walking by, an African American man opened the door of the van and came towards her! Her daughter ran all the way home! The urgent alert received dozens of concerned replies. The police were called. And later that morning, I saw construction workers at a site three blocks away, with their white van and white pickup truck parked on the street.

It might help if people were simply more aware of this as a problem, but alerting people is hard. A couple weeks ago, a Nextdoor member in our neighborhood tried to draw attention to the problem of racism on the site, and got attacked by other participants. I waded in to merely say I think she might have a point, and I got attacked. The moderator shut down the discussion thread citing “policy violations on both sides.” So much for civil discourse.

The problem is not unique to Nextdoor—it’s just particularly easy to observe there. The site Hollaback takes an unusual approach to this problem—they discourage mentions of race. The purpose of Hollaback is to support discussion of street harassment. If someone cat calls you on the street or gropes you on the subway, you can go to Hollaback to share your experience—both to express your feelings, get support, and alert the community. But they discourage posters from mentioning the race of their harasser:

Due in part to prevalent stereotypes of men of color as sexual predators or predisposed to violence, HollaBackNYC asks that contributors do not discuss the race of harassers or include other racialized commentary

The more I see the everday racism of my neighbors on Nextdoor, the more I see the reasons for this policy. But it still feels like an extreme solution. (Someone groped me, and I can’t say what they looked like? I can hear the cries of political correctness gone mad.)

There really are (occasional) burglars in our neighborhood, and Nextdoor serves an important function by helping people alert one another. But is it possible to be a black man in our neighborhood and not be reported as suspicious?

The long-term solution is to all work to be less racist. To confront the tacit stereotypes we all hold,. In the short term, how do we stop social networks from making the problem worse? Leave me a comment.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 9, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    Thanks for the post, Amy. I was particularly shocked that the thread was shut down by the moderator. One thought is for moderation policies to prohibit moderators to shut down a conversation where people are calling out racist comments. In other words, if moderators are in fact not aware of or do not care about the space being used to reinforce racism, then they should not be moderators to begin with.
    Another is to promote constructive participation and reduce bystander effect (e.g., how do we design for improved participation from those who call out on racism).
    Another is building some sort of community feedback into the system. So, like, what if a racist comment stays there, BUT people could flag it as racist? Will we see a difference in a good way over time?
    And, as always, accountability and the degree to which one is identified. If people are hold accountable somehow, would it influence their racism-oriented behavior?

  2. mmdye
    March 11, 2016 at 9:00 am

    I was actually going to talk to you about this same issue last week! Someone in my neighborhood posted on Nextdoor saying that they noticed suspicious Mexican teenagers in the neighborhood. It took a lot of self control for me not to ask the neighbor how they knew that they were Mexican (or even Hispanic for that matter). We also have several international families in apartment complexes within our neighborhood who take walks with their children. It saddens me that this is considered suspicious behavior. I like Nextdoor and we, too, have had occasional burglaries. However, the racism is disheartening. I don’t have any good suggestions just yet but I’m glad you’re discussing this issue.

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