I was not going to talk about this stuff any more. But Louis grey’s post on the “racist underbelly” of the web struck a deep chord. He describes how two black bloggers, Wayne Sutton and Corvida, had a live Yahoo video chat to discuss Loren Feldman and the Tech Nigga incident, and the anonymous overtly racist chatter in the video’s text chat room. It was painful to read, but I realised it provided me an opportunity to talk about what I think is a really big important issue.
Unlike in 1964, the year I was born, today few people are comfortable being labelled as racist. The successful tactics of protesting, boycotting, and social pressure have been incredibly effective in applying shame to the label.
Unfortunately, in demonizing racism, we have done two things. We have driven the unrepentant racists underground, and into anonymity. And we have sanded down the meaning of the term so substantially that almost no acts committed by those outside the underground anonymous can be categorized as such.
Today the definition of racism is so circumscribed, that for many it is almost impossible to find a valid use case. For many, it would require calling a black man a nigger or saying, “I hate black people,” or doing something equivalently overt. For some, even the use of the word “nigger” does not warrant the racism label, since black people use it amongst themselves. It’s not fair, defenders say, to give a word to black people that white people can’t use.
And for many others, it’s also not valid to label language as racist if it not in the form of a statement. It’s a bit like Jeopardy. Any potentially racist language is not racist if you change the form to a question, or in Loren Feldman’s case, a joke. Then you can, apparently, say absolutely anything.
And so by these measures, there are many who feel that Loren Feldman’s Tech Nigga was not racist.
Some of these folks are openly, though anonymously, racist. I don’t have statistics, but my sense is that, when given the cloak of the Web, this is not a small group. I say this based on purely anecdotal evidence such as exit polling in democratic primaries in Appalachia, support on discussion forums for Michael Richards, and, indeed, response to the Corvida/Wayne Sutton chat.
But the most troubling group to me are the ones that just don’t think this kind of material is a big deal. They believe blacks are too “thin skinned” about this stuff. “What’s the big deal, it’s all in fun.” Some think protesting Feldman’s work is somehow violating his right to free speech. This group fascinates me, and as far as I can tell, it is not an inconsequential percentage of the tech blogosphere.
Then, there is another part of the tech blogosphere that is either afraid to speak up, or feels the discussion is beneath them. I have several prominent and/or powerful blogger friends who have said this. Or they have said, “I don’t want to get involved.”
For many of you in your twenties or early thirties, the civil rights movement is abstract history. Yesterday, for instance, Tom from TomsTechBlog told me that protesting Loren Feldman was immoral, and that threatening boycotts was actually illegal. I don’t mean to pick on Tom, because he’s a decent person. But he’s ignorant of the facts, and doesn’t understand the social context of these issues. Let me try to provide some.
I was born in Harlem, in the midst of the civil rights movement. My father was an active participant in that movement. His best friend was Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, to whom he served as counselor. So as a child I was present as amazing things were happening. I observed as great people planned and fought so that I would have opportunities that they did not. Not that I fully understood what was going on, but it was happening all around me, and I could not miss its import. They fought the evil ideas, and the evil people. And they won. And in so doing they helped to change the country.
Admittedly and thankfully, this country is far, far better today. And the reason my father was able to start as a mail sorter and end up a judge, and the reason that I can write this blog and do the work I do, is because of the many great people, white and black, who protested, boycotted, and resisted. Peaceful resistance and dissent, is not only a right, but a responsibility for those of us who value decency and democracy.
To suggest that the right thing to do is to be silent in the face of racist words, or that protesting or boycotting is wrong, wipes away the part of American history that has made my life possible — peaceful protest.
And to suggest that we should just ignore racist bile like Tech Nigga is wrong. Words matter.
Words influence minds. Minds influence mouths. And hearts. And fists. And paychecks. And guns.
And how we respond to words matters, too. It’s part of what defines racism in 2008.
In 2008, racism is appeasing the evildoers. It is making jokes that no one finds funny, or ones that a few misguided people do. It is categorising large swaths of people with words and language that hurt them, even if you have no idea why. It is questioning the morals of people when they stand up to defend themselves against language that seeks to further diminish an already weak social standing. And, yes, racism is doing nothing when you could be doing something. I know racism when I see it, and I hope you do too. What are you going to do about it?
SAI Contributor Hank Williams is a New York-based entrepreneur. He writes Why Does Everything Suck? Exploring the tech marketplace from 10,000 feet.