Assuming Whiteness in Social Media

It seems like we share more and more of our personal information online. Advertisers want access to this information so that they can target their marketing to particular groups, or “market segments.”   Should social media sites collect racial or ethnic data on subscribers?  This was the topic of an interesting discussion curated by Jessica Faye Carter (video) at her blog Technicultr recently.

Facebook Wants a New Face

(Creative Commons License photo credit: smlions12 )

GIven that social media companies, like Facebook, are collecting all kinds of other data on us, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that social networks are now interested in either explicitly asking for racial/ethnic identification or figuring it out through data mining.    Is racial or ethnic identity “private” information that we should be concerned about sharing? In my view, racial and ethnic identity in social networks is less an issue of privacy and more about the assumptions in place that make that kind of identification necessary.

The fact is that social networks, like the culture more broadly, discourage racial or ethnic identification. Instead, in the current era of “color blindness” people are told that it’s “not polite” to mention race.

What polite colorblindness covers up, though, is the assumption that everyone’s white until they say otherwise. At a recent blogging conference I attended, an African American woman told the story of being online for years before anyone knew she was black. Why? Because her name is “Heather” and people just assumed she was white.

Does this assumption of whiteness matter? It does if your experience puts you outside white identity and you’re looking for your own likeness in popular culture.

As just one, small example, I’m a big women’s basketball fan of both the college and professional teams. And, I especially love watching a sport where black women excel. But, when it’s “March Madness” (college ball) or the summer during the WNBA season, it’s almost impossible to find mainstream news coverage of my favorite teams because ESPN and my local news outlets are filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the mens’ teams. When I do manage to find a WNBA game on television, it’s always a little startling to see the ads because they’re geared toward a black female audience. When I see those ads, I’m reminded once more how white and male-centric the rest of the culture is.

One of the great things about social networks is that people create their own images and can adjust that skewed, mainstream lens. It’s part of what I enjoy about social networks like Twitter. In these spaces, I can connect with people from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are different than my own who have a different take on the dominant culture. But what I’ve learned online is a lesson that many of us learned offline, too – that racial identity doesn’t necessarily map onto political views or marketing preferences.

Hurricane Katrina & Race: Scholarship at Five Year Anniversary

On Sunday, President Obama gave a speech at Xavier University in New Orleans, marking the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.    I’ll be teaching about Hurricane Katrina to undergraduates this semester, so I’ve been reading and thinking about the scholarship on Hurricane Katrina and race at this milestone.

(Image from BoingBoing)

Although there’s been some good journalism and good blogging about the Katrina anniversary, I haven’t seen much in the way of a review of the research on the subject.    So, here’s my offering.  This is just some of what I’ve run across, organized very broadly by discipline:

Sociology – The sociology on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath highlights the intersection of race, gender and class.  Sociologists contend that the inequality that existed before prior to the disaster, became intensified and deepened in the aftermath of the storm.   Further, sociologists point out the way that this rupture in the usual “colorblind” ethos that prevails in the U.S. served to strengthen whites’ racial apathy toward blacks, especially those who are economically impoverished.

Environmental / Urban Studies – Urban and environmental studies examine the ways that the built environment shaped the disaster and the ways that environmental hazards are concentrated in minority communities.  In addition, those who look at the disaster through an urban studies lens explore the process whereby local economic elites are seeking to make an opportunity of the destruction by monopolizing the planning process and rebuilding the cityscape in a fashion more amenable to the accumulation of capital.

Public Health -Psychology-Mental Health – Psychologists along with public health and mental health professionals examine the impact the disaster had on individual mental health.  One study (Galea, et al., 2008) found that women, and those who had suffered significant financial loss following the disaster, were more likely than men or those who didn’t suffer significant financial loss, to experience PTSD after the storm.

Media / Communications – Communications and media scholars focus attention on the ways that the mainstream media framed the disaster for television audiences and newspaper readers.   Study after study demonstrates that, as Tierney et al. demonstrate, “metaphors matter.”   As the image above illustrates, race played an important role in the ways that the stories from the disaster were told.

Public Policy – Scholars and analysts that examine the racial impact of the disaster from a policy perspective tend to focus on the failure of governmental, corporate and private agencies to respond to the plight of New Orleans’ black community. Stivers makes a compelling case that racism – “The belief that members of a certain race are inherently inferior – less intelligent, less ambitious – has rationalized discriminatory treatment as fitting, proper, and without evil intent,” – significantly shaped the public policy response following Hurricane Katrina.  Five of the six areas classified as most heavily damaged were neighborhoods with 60-80% poverty, and the population was predominantly black.  Stivers notes how these two facts – racism and the disproportionate impact of the storm on black people – shaped public policy response to the storm, when she writes: “On the one hand, the bureaucrat’s job is to lighten the burden imposed by a capitalist economy that inevitably leaves some people at the bottom; on the other hand, American ideology relies on the belief that people who are at the bottom are there because of some character flaw or inherent inability.”

I’m sure there’s good research I’ve overlooked in this brief list.  If I’ve left out some of your research, or some that you know of and use, please add a comment and I’ll update the original post.