Facebook Racism

Young people’s use of social networking sites, like Facebook, have quickly become an established feature of youth culture, according to a new report.  Facebook in particular, is proving incredibly popular; and, current estimates are that there are 120 million active users of the social networking site, as this bar graph illustrates (as of 2007, image from here). Yet there’s scant little attention paid to the emergence of new forms of racism that accompany these new forms of media.  Recently, there have been some notable examples of Facebook racism that I want to explore  (H/T Mordy for sending this my way).   As Joe’s been writing here, there’s been a real surge in overt racist actions in the wake of the election, and this incident, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, illustrates how the white racial frame can be used to completely distract from racism (from the top):

A template on facebook.com asks, “What are you doing right now?” An ill-advised response led to Buck Burnette’s expulsion from the University of Texas football team.

What began as a private text-message exchange on Election Night between Burnette and a friend soon became available for anybody with a computer to see.

Burnette, a sophomore offensive lineman from Wimberley, was dismissed from the team Nov. 5 for posting a racially insensitive remark about President-elect Barack Obama on his Facebook page.

“I told (our players) to be careful with Facebook and MySpace,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “Those things are really dangerous.”

A survey taken during Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call found most of the league’s coaches are concerned about how much information is available on popular social-networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

The major concern: Users can voluntarily provide personal information, and the more popular the athletes, the more contact “with hundreds of people they don’t know,” Iowa State coach Gene Chizik.

“It’s a challenge for coaches, because ultimately we’re responsible,” Chizik said.

In the status update section of his Facebook page, Burnette posted, “All the hunters gather up, we have a (slur) in the White House,” in reference to Obama’s becoming the first African-American elected to the presidency. Burnette said the comment was a text message he received from a friend and that he exercised bad judgment posting it on his page. He later apologized in a written note that was read by Brown during a team meeting.

Apologies for the long quote, but it’s relevant to my point.  The article begins with a discussion about how “dangerous” social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are, but let’s be clear – the danger here as it is being described by this football couch, and reported on without comment by the Chronicle, is to the football player.   The “danger” is that he will post something on his page that’s “Ill-advised” and he will be expelled from the team, which is what happened to Burnette.   This is a rather profound shift away from what’s actually going on here.    What has happened here is that a young, white college student at a top school has threatened the president-elect and referred to him by using a racist slur.   And yet the newspaper article is framed as though there is an inherent “danger” in Facebook.   It seems to me that the danger is in the way that Facebook (and other forms of new media) give rise to heretofore unseen versions of racism that combine new technology with old hatred.  This combination of old and new forms of racism expressed through Internet technology is what I refer to as “cyber racism” (I explore it more depth in my forthcoming book of the same name).

Interestingly, this is not the first time college football players in the U.S. have gotten in trouble for Facebook racism. In 2007, members of the USC football team created a Facebook group called “White Nation,” which featured a graphic with the caption, “arrest black babies before they become criminals.”  The description of the group reads like this:

“This group is not for the faint of heart,” read the group’s description. “All members are athletes of Caucasion (sic) descent. DISCLAIMER: In no way are the following memebers (sic) intolerant of others, we are just doing our duty of protecting the Arian (sic) brotherhood.”

According to the USC college paper, an unnamed source from the athletic department said that the group was “a joke and had no serious purpose.”   While the athletic department may find humor in such antics, the joke is lost on the rest of us.    This sort of Facebook racism is not the sole purview of college athletes.

In 2005, University of Virginia first year student Maryann Li was horrified when she stumbled across a Facebook group that some of her college classmates had created.  The group, called “Asian Fetish,” for those who think “Asian women are truly the most scrumptrillescent delicacy abroad,” and the description of the group’s purpose:  “to bang out Asians. Bang hard or go home. Yes, even the ugly bitches.” The racist and deeply misogynistic group description goes on: “I can’t help it if my dick likes the taste of Teriyaki sauce. Or soy. Or duck for that matter. And when I’m feeling a little risky, wasabi…” it proclaimed. The creator of the Facebook group, white U.Va. sophomore Patrick Gieseke defended his creation of the group, saying that he intended it as satire.   This article quotes Gieseke saying,

“I couldn’t see anyone reading that and being like, ‘Wow, someone really wants to do this to Asian girls.’ I thought it was pretty blatant that it was just a joke,” he said.

So once again, Facebook racism gets dismissed by whites as “just joking” and therefore not something harmful or worth addressing.  Not surprisingly, Asian American students at U.Va. were not amused by Gieseke’s “joke.”   Two students, Elizabeth Chen and Julie Chu, attempted to organize a “Speak Out” to invite students who have faced discrimination to share their stories with the community at U.Va’.s amphitheater but found little interest.   When it comes to race, Chu said, “the majority of white people at U.Va. don’t care.” The emergence of this sort of gendered racism on Facebook is characteristic of the racialized pornography in print-media that Pat Collins talks about in Black Feminist Thought.   The fact that this has now moved to the new media environment of Facebook means that these old versions of racism are being translated into the digital era and some of the centuries old racism remains as it is mashed-up against new forms of social interaction.     

For its part, Facebook has removed the most extreme and offensive racist groups for violation of their terms-of-service (TOS) agreement. This is the right stand for Facebook to take in my view, and it’s one that other sites should follow through on.  But, Facebook did not take this without significant pressure.

The European Parliament lodged the most significant complaint with the California-based Facebook. Martin Schulz, Socialist leader within the EP, said, “The existence of these groups is repulsive.” And, indeed it is. According to this report, the pressure on Facebook came mainly from European sources about Italian neo-Nazi groups.   Still, the “White Nation” group in the USC controversy is still hosted on Facebook (or, it’s a group by the same name with an identical description), and there are over 60 groups that come up if you search using the terms “Asian Fetish.”    So, while Facebook may be responding to pressure from Europeans to remove the most repulsive and extreme groups from the site, apparently there is little or no pressure from people in the U.S.   In my view, it’s time for some of those 120 million active users to step up and put some pressure on Facebook to enforce its terms-of-service agreement by not allowing such groups on the site.

Meanwhile, extremist white supremacist websites have proven so popular in the days since the election that the flood of traffic by white people has crashed the servers at one site.   More about that form of cyber racism in a subsequent post.