In recent weeks, Facebook groups have imploded and splintered to form new explicitly anti-racist groups. Fandoms are divided online when celebrities speak out or show up to a Black Lives Matters protest. In a decision that rocked the online crafting community, Ravelry banned pro-Trump posts and designs from being uploaded to the site. The website proclaimed to its 8 million members: “We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open White supremacy… Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy.”
While some users decried the invasion of politics into previously cozy and “neutral” spaces, these spaces were never truly neutral. Members are rejecting online communities whose comfort depends on allowing macroaggressions to continue unchecked all the while claiming that they refuse to take sides on controversial issues.
The end of a false neutrality online is a positive development for diversity and inclusion.
Psychologists identify “belonging” in a social group as a primal human need. Belonging is why we engage in social media. But online communities that claim neutrality towards racism or tolerate racist and bigoted posts in the name of free speech reinforce the feeling that people of color don’t really belong in these spaces.
Generally, admins are quick to delete posts concerning racism as “off-topic.” However, when one filters through, the responses are illuminating: Racism isn’t real. Racism is in people’s hearts, but it’s not a systemic problem. Why do people of color insist on seeing differences when we’re all the same? Forget all this divisiveness: here’s a puppy wearing a vest!
Such responses reflect privileged notions of what is positive. For many people of color, the recognition that Black lives matter across social media channels is a positive and uplifting development.
Online communities of all kinds must, at this moment, acknowledge the reality of racism and affirmatively object to it. This will be outside the comfort zone of many of their community members. When so-called moderates remain neutral, white supremacy prevails.
Each week showcases a new video of a person of color accosted as they live their lives, shouted at for taking up space, or having a gun pointed at them by law enforcement of a fellow citizen. This behavior is not new, but it is news to some. To those comfortable in their bubble of privilege, these videos unveil a different reality than the one they know. They are a shock. They are not comfortable, but the revolution will not be comfortable. It will be the truth.
Making people uncomfortable in their own private spaces is necessary to sustain the momentum of last month’s anti-racism mass protests. In the 1960s, civil rights organizers used television to bring the marches, speeches, fire hoses, and police dogs, directly into white living rooms. Now, social media is bringing the continual individual harassment of minorities in videos, memes, and words directly to computer screens in diverse households across the country.
Don’t look away.
Even the social media platforms themselves have recognized inaction is a false form of neutrality. Facebook removed Trump ads that promote hate. Twitter flagged several Trump tweets for being misleading and one tweet that glorified violence. Youtube updated its hate-speech policy in June to ban videos that glorify Nazi ideology or deny the existence of well-documented events such as the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Perhaps they too have realized the wisdom of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Sameena Karmally is an attorney and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. She was the Democratic nominee for Texas House District 89 in 2014.