Creating lasting change in the age of the Internet

by Mariam Williams

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Don't read the comments.

I've had this rule since some point in 2011, the first time I had a socially conscious op-ed published in my local newspaper. The comments online -- or perhaps it was the sentiments expressed in letters to the editor published in print later in the week -- were so personal that they upset my mother.

I've since extended my policy to every article, op-ed or news story I read online. I tend to read journalists who write about race, gender or religion, like I do, and we attract vicious verbal venom for our stances on, or simply our information about, very polarizing issues. By avoiding the comments, I probably spare myself suffering from rage-induced apoplexy, but I miss the chance to see the sentiments in some readers' hearts, and perhaps I also miss the chance to gain insight into where the fight for social change is and to gauge the probability of the changes I desire coming about.

Jesus said in Luke 6:45 that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." I take this to mean that nothing just slips out; no matter how polite you try to be or how much you try to contain it, you eventually say how you really feel.

The digital age has revealed far too many hearts still full of racism. As someone who works in social justice research and as a student, I emphasize institutionalized or structural racism. This is the kind of racism that disproportionately affects people of color, despite all the anti-discrimination laws on the books. This is legacy racism, the kind that upholds the social inequity established during settlement and slavery without saying that it does so. There are no pilgrims calling Native Americans "savages," judges declaring that people of African descent are "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," or signs that say "White Only" or "Colored."

No one has to harbor malice in their hearts against people of color for structural racism to exist. There are just more people of color who are sick, jobless, poor, un- or under-educated, living in segregated and substandard housing, and swept into the criminal justice system than there should be given their portion of the population. It's the quiet racism you don't have to think about but that I want everyone to think about, because it kills people and it must change.

Lately, though, I'm seeing or hearing about more people who openly express the kind of racism that's much easier to address than the structural variety. In an integrated, "post-racial" society in which an African-American president can be elected twice, the blatant racism routinely expressed in our digital age of comments, tweets, posts, GIFs or YouTube videos is considered socially unacceptable.

Who wasn't appalled by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity's chant, "There will never be a n----r in SAE"? Former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling shamed his mistress for taking photos with black people, and the NBA banned him permanently. Two educators recently lost their jobs after expressing on Facebook their dissatisfaction with the black children at the now-infamous pool party in McKinney, Texas. One teacher even said she wished blacks were "all segregated on one side of town" again so they could "leave innocent people alone." (I guess she's unaware that many cities are still extremely segregated along racial lines and that segregation contributes to racial tension, but I digress.)

Normally, I take a "sticks and stones" attitude toward such things. Sure, those old racist views are inappropriate, perhaps even hurtful, but what can name-calling do? Not much, unless someone is in a position to act on those attitudes and their actions have the power to affect large numbers of people. As Bomani Jones stated multiple times and Ta-Nehisi Coates echoed, Sterling was far more dangerous as a property owner who refused to rent to blacks and Latinos than he was as a racist adulterer.

But I'm not sure structural change is possible without heart change. I think people tolerate injustices against other people when they don't feel anything for the people who are treated unfairly. It's hard to empathize with someone you consider subhuman or somehow beneath you. When a person becomes a creature to be feared or remains a person but one whose very nature is bad, her death doesn't sadden you much.

The thing is, awareness of what these heartfelt expressions are really saying is rare among those expressing them. The teacher who expressed nostalgia for segregation also included a hashtag at the end of her post, claiming, "I'm not racist," and she apologized that she "let my emotions get the best of me." That's not what she did. In an emotional moment, she released to the public the hundreds of years of the systematic dehumanization of blackness that had taken hold in her heart and in the hearts of millions of other people, many of whom are black.

I'd like to end this column on a hopeful note, but I don't know how to begin to fix hundreds of years of negative messaging of blackness communicated in entertainment, news reports, media and even religion on a mass scale. I work with many white individuals doing anti-racist work, and I love these comrades, but so many more people like them are needed to create lasting change.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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