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.

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