A few months ago, I joined a couple of neighborhood Facebook groups, and like previous times when I’ve participated in lightly moderated or unmoderated Internet discussions, I was once again shocked by people’s opinions and behaviors. You’d think I’d learn. Anyway, one of the groups was a neighborhood ‘Crime Watch’ group, and several times when recent local (thankfully, not terribly severe) crimes were discussed, some commenters immediately assumed that they were perpetrated by the [mostly Latino] workers building new homes in the area. In two of these instances, the probable perpetrators were caught (in part due to awareness raised by the Facebook page, to give credit where it’s due), and the alleged criminals turned out to be white teenagers who live in the neighborhood. So much for people’s desire to believe that the crimes were perpetrated by outsiders.
A couple of weeks ago, someone posted to the Crime Watch group a link to a news article about two accused burglars who’d been caught, wondering if they had been active in our area. The news article displayed the mugshots from both alleged criminals, and as it happens, they were both African American. Predictably, some of the first comments on the Facebook thread were pretty horrible and/or racist, in my opinion. One of those first commenters simply wrote, “Thugs.” I added a comment, “‘Thug’ is a racially charged word. Best to avoid it.” In my mind, I hadn’t openly accused the previous commenter of racism, though in truth that’s what I was thinking. Naively, I did not anticipate the pile-on that subsequently occurred. The original commenter added that she herself was Hispanic and therefore couldn’t be racist. Later came accusations of political correctness, which quickly degenerated into flat-out name-calling. It got very ugly quickly.
For weeks prior to this, I would recount to Katie the appalling narrow-mindedness I saw in discussions in the Facebook pages, and Katie would always respond by asking me why I continued to frequent them if they caused me so much grief. Fair point. The name-calling pile-on brought her point home, so I resigned from all of the groups for my own mental health.
But it has continued to bug me why I was so unprepared for the responses that I got to my last comment. A few days ago, I ran across this Youtube video, and it helped me to understand better what happened:
Here’s the heart of the Youtuber’s point (thanks to Fred Clark for the transcription):
That mindset right there is what does as much as anything to perpetuate injustice all over our society. That assumption that only a “cretin” or a monster or a bad person would ever be racist or sexist or harbor any sort of bias or prejudice.
That right there is the Big Lie. There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people. That’s just not how being good works. And that’s not how being a human being works.
The truth … is that all of us, as good people, are still naturally prone to doing bad things. We all have natural tendencies toward implicit bias and prejudice and bad habits. …
I now realize that I had a different definition in racism in mind than some of my neighbors on the Facebook group. My definition is more like the one in the video: we all have biases, and even if we don’t, then those who read our words might. Therefore, it’s best to avoid terminology that might be understood as racist–even if not intended that way. The people who reacted so strongly to my comment, however, define racist as the overt, intentional racism of ‘bad people.’ Therefore, my suggestion of racism was, to them, an accusation that they are that type of person. Unmoderated internet discussions are not a good place to explain nuanced views.