The Internet Is Unmasking Racism. Here’s What That Means to Young People of Color.
In his own words, BU sociologist Rob Eschmann reveals the findings of his new study
Rob Eschmann is a Boston University School of Social Work assistant professor of human behavior. His research interests include race, social media, education, violence prevention, activism, and community organizing. Eschmann’s latest study, published July 26, 2019, in Social Problems, reveals how students of color react to discovering that their peers at a private university have published racist messages anonymously online. He wrote about his findings and how the internet is providing a place for people to anonymously share openly racist messages without social consequences.
Some time ago I had a debate with a friend and colleague—someone I respect and admire—about whether racism was still a serious problem in society. He saw himself as being passionately antiracist, but believed that racism was largely an evil of the past and now had a minimal impact on people’s lives. I tried to use personal examples to demonstrate that racism was still alive—from experiencing microaggressions on college campuses to my numerous interactions with the police—but in the end, I don’t think he got it.
He’s not the only one who has a hard time recognizing modern racism. Before the civil rights movement, racism was open, ugly, and legal. Today, however, discrimination has been outlawed and racism tends to be more subtle. You could say that whereas racism showed its face in the 1950s, nowadays it’s masked—hidden behind supposedly color-blind institutions and interactions.
Thankfully, a great number of scholars and activists have spent decades exploring and explaining masked racism. Research on Blacks being given longer prison sentences than Whites for committing the same crimes, unequal funding in public education, and unconscious racial bias teaches us how to recognize the subtle mechanisms and manifestations of racism in the modern era.
But for anyone who has ever read comments under a YouTube video or online news article, it is clear that not all racism in today’s digital age is subtle. Some online spaces, particularly anonymous ones, provide opportunities for people to be openly racist without social consequences.
I call this the unmasking of racism. Whereas post–civil rights movement racism has remained hidden behind friendly interactions and supposedly color-blind laws, racism is now being unmasked in online spaces, revealing the types of open and ugly racist attitudes and actions that many people in the US thought were behind us.
Over the past five years, I’ve been researching the ways that online racism impacts people—especially people of color—and their understandings and experiences with race and racism. Often, we don’t know where online racist messages come from; anonymous commenters can be anyone, anywhere in the world, and this allows us to see these online interactions as being separate from the real world.
But in a paper recently published in Social Problems, I explore the impact of an anonymous website that didn’t feel so anonymous to its readers. The site, called the Politically Incorrect Confessions Page, was created to let students at a private university in the Midwest, which I will call “Mid-U,” talk about uncomfortable topics.
Whereas post–civil rights movement racism has remained hidden behind friendly interactions and supposedly color-blind laws, racism is now being unmasked in online spaces, revealing the types of open and ugly racist attitudes and actions that many people in the US thought were behind us.
In reality, however, the site became known for its numerous racist and offensive messages. These racist messages hit closer to home than most online racism, because not only did the messages come from anonymous members of the college community, but they were also often written about specific people, places, groups, and events on campus.
I conducted interviews with students of color at Mid-U to understand how the messages on the site shaped their view of race and racism on campus and beyond.
The discussions revealed that the site caused students to experience challenges to their existing worldviews, coping strategies, relationships, and dominant understandings of racism. While individual reactions varied, four distinct types of response emerged.
For one group of students, the website challenged their racial worldviews. These students had been happy with the interracial dynamic at Mid-U, and didn’t think racism was that big of a deal on campus. They believed that the commonalities between students transcended racial differences. So even when there were racist events on campus—like a racist-themed frat party, for example—these students saw these events as being rare, not representative of the racial climate. They believed the anonymous racist messages on the website, however, were indicative of a deeper problem. Their ways of thinking about racism were shattered as the old-fashioned, overtly racist attitudes that characterized the Jim Crow era were revealed to be present among some of their peers.
In another type of response, a group of students found that their styles of coping with racism were challenged by the anonymity of the website. Many of these students had experience and expertise in responding to contemporary forms of racism, from microaggressions to the aforementioned frat party, and were involved in antiracist-organizing efforts on campus. The website, however, made it so that they did not have a clear opponent—they didn’t know who was posting on the site, so they had no one to protest or chastise. These students felt disempowered because of the technology that was protecting the identity of their racist peers.
Another group of students believed that the website challenged their relationships with Whites. They became less trustful of their White peers, noting that anyone could have been behind the posts on the website. In an environment where relationships between different racial groups were characterized by friendliness, this response indicated that students understood that being nice could coexist with holding racist views. The messages on the website, therefore, were understood to represent the unmasking of their peers’ true racial attitudes.
The last group of students were those who felt validated by the site: they had long understood the ways that racism was embedded in campus life, but had struggled to communicate this to their peers and professors. For them, the site challenged dominant understandings of racism—like my colleague believing we were living in a post-racial, color-blind world—and served as evidence of the continuing significance of race.
The Mid-U campus in my study isn’t the only place where racism is being unmasked through the internet. From cell phone footage of police killing unarmed Blacks, to leaked racist emails and messages—or even Tweets from President Trump that frequently blur the line between covert and overt racism—internet-based communication is exposing the continuing significance of racism in a world that sometimes pretends to be color-blind. While those who have experienced or studied racism have long known this to be true, for many the unmasking of racism is an eye-opening experience. How will they, and we, respond?
Follow Rob Eschmann on Twitter (@robeschmann) for his latest thoughts.