Enacting Whiteness When Tagging People of Colour

I’ve written about why White people should reflect on the deeper motivations whenever they feel a need to tag Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other people of colour, in their own conversations on race and racism. White people should understand that tagging people of colour into racist exchanges introduces further discrimination and abuse into that person’s life. I show this through an example of online abuse I received after one of my White followers tagged me twice into conversations involving someone who had previously harassed me.

Whiteness

White people often tag people of colour into their social media conversations on racism without recognising the impact. Sometimes this is because White people become easily overwhelmed when engaging in personal conversations of racism. This is an outcome of Whiteness. White people do not often think critically about race and so they are not readily aware of the benefits and protections they receive from their race. As such, everyday racism is often invisible to them. This includes not noticing racism unless it is overt in an extreme form which they recognise and feel disconcerted by. When they decide to step into racial conversations, White people are unfamiliar with how quickly race discussions escalate. As they face race discussions head on, they may panic and tag people of colour, ironically, to get support and reinforcement from people of colour.

This might take the form of a benign invitation to a person of colour as racial observer (“I wonder what @PersonOfColour thinks about this?”) or as racism expert (“How dare you say something so racist. You should read @PersonOfColour’s posts”).

Ally theatre

Other times, White people will tag people of colour as part of an “I’m not racist” performance. Writer Princess Harmony Rodriguez describes “ally theatre” as a demonstration of “solidarity” to marginalised people, which causes harm or violence.

“The performance, played out on social media for all to see, gets you kudos, likes, faves, shares, and even career opportunities (a la Charles Clymer and many others).”

When tagging people of colour into their social media squabbles, White people want people of colour to witness them “fighting racism.” This need for validation suggests that White people see their temporary engagement with racism as deserving of a reward. White people can dip in and out of racism discussions as they see fit. When they get tired, they tag out. People of colour cannot pick and choose when they see and respond to racism because it’s part of our daily lives. Even when exhausted from fighting racial discrimination online, people of colour cannot simply switch off their notifications, because racism is still there: in the classroom, on a career panel, at hospital, when pulled for a not-so “random” security check at the airport, and everywhere else. Racial discrimination is pervasive, embedded in institutions and interpersonal interactions.

Real world consequences

The consequences of responding to racism, whether online or offline, are very high for people of colour. As a race scholar who uses social media to discuss issues of racial justice, I’m often tagged into unsafe discussions. Here, I focus on one specific incident. I was tagged by a White woman on two of her threads where she was bickering with a White man who had previously attacked me. She had seen these past incidents, because she had also responded and being part of the earlier discussion. She knew what he was capable of, including deceiving me into giving him material for an article he published without my consent. He pretended to be a regular member of the public and did not disclose he was working on a story and that he was seeking my commentary. He also plagiarised my social media posts for his story. I had publicly called him out on his unethical “journalism.” He and his editor were equally boorish in their responses on Twitter. I subsequently blocked him and his churnalist publication. The writer continued to return to my blog to write comments for weeks and months to come, bragging about using an IP blocker so he could evade the moderation functions on my blog. This gives you a sense of how heavily invested racist people are in pursuing their hate speech and abuse.

Immediately after tagging me in the new joust, I received a racist, ableist and transphobic comment on my blog (below). Aside from the timing, the argument and language of this comment is identical to the same person’s previous abusive posts to me in the past. This White man would have received not just this White woman’s comments where she tried to tag me into her discussion; he would have received multiple notifications from my other followers who started responding and re-sharing her post tagging me. All of this would whet his appetite for further racist attacks. And on that, he followed through.

Whatever the conscious and unconscious intentions, tagging people of colour is bait for abuse. Without recognising it, when White people tag people of colour into their discussions of racism, they are asking racial minorities to take over the fight. People of colour already deal with enough racism day-to-day.

Racism should not be the cost of doing public science and other engagements on social media. People of colour already face a high degree of racist aggression as a consequence of our work, volunteering, other writing, and our own social media posts on anti-racism.

Do call out racism. It’s important for White people to do the work of anti-racism. But White people might reflect on the fact that people of colour carry a huge burden, one that is greater for women of colour and femmes, especially for those who are queer, disabled or who belong to multiple minority groups.

‘I’m not racist but…’

It is not enough to consider oneself “not racist.” This is a subjective term that does nothing to end racial injustice. If anything, the “I’m not racist” crown obscures the impact of race and racism, and provides an excuse for White people to do next to nothing to challenge racism. As Martin Luther King argued, “moderate Whites” who think they are not the problem, pose a far greater threat than overt racists, specifically to Black people. Moderate Whites believe their sensibilities of order and civility should dictate racial liberation. That there’s a “right” time and way for Black people to “ask” for freedom (this is tantamount to “negative peace,” in King’s words).

Anti-racism requires concrete changes that improve the life outcomes, wellbeing and collective progress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other people of colour. The work is on all of us to fight racism, not just when we see it, when it personally wounds us or the people we know, but to challenge anti-Blackness, to fight for Indigenous sovereignty, to reject racist classifications that criminisalise refugees and asylum seekers, and other examples of racial discrimination.

Peggy McIntosh
“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions…” – Peggy McIntosh

When people of colour talk about these and related issues, they do so on their own terms, and not for the benefit of White people. That is another dynamic of Whiteness: White people expect that people of colour write about race and racism to educate them, rather than for the myriad of reasons why people of colour choose to do so (to let off steam, for their own understanding, for their people’s survival, for their liberation). Tagging people of colour comes at a high price because it is a service that White people summon, as if people of colour are servants whose duty it is to respond in place of White people’s ignorance. Tagging sends the message that people of colour are shields to deflect from White people’s culpability. In short, when White people tag people of colour, they are cashing in the assets from their “invisible knapsack” of White privilege (as Peggy McIntosh put it).

Anti-racism

Instead of simply tagging people of colour in social media posts, White people might engage in critical thinking about their race, and practice the spirit of anti-racism – action, not theatre:

  • Self-educate and reflect on race and racism on one’s own time, without expecting free labour by people of colour
  • Take active steps to end racial discrimination. Speaking out against racial oppression is good but actions speak louder
  • Report abusive comments you see online
  • Read and share articles and social media posts by people of colour, and take ownership of changing behaviour based on this body of work

Other steps to take:

  • Hire and promote people of colour for their work
  • Pay people of colour for their expertise, time and activism
  • Ensure people of colour are in decision-making roles and that they lead reviews and assessments of anti-racism solutions
  • Use cues from people of colour to guide advocacy and activism. Don’t do what you think is “enough,” but instead listen and amplify the work of minority scholars, activists, and community members
  • Uplift the voices and support the actions of racial minorities, on terms acceptable to those individuals
  • Respect and uphold people of colour’s safety
  • Stop centring Whiteness, and seeking validation of the “Good White Person.” Step aside, so people of colour lead conversations, campaigns, and policies
  • Give up White privilege: make space on online platforms for racial minorities, recommend people of colour for speaking engagements, give minorities their due accolade, awards, funds and other means to improve inequality.

Do these things and more, so that racial minorities can have access to new opportunities and so people of colour can highlight the issues, actions and changes they need to end racism.

An earlier version of this post was first published on Twitter.

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