The Race Swap Experiment – Delving into Digital Discrimination

The Internet can be a scary place. Behind a computer screen people feel emboldened to write their nastiest thoughts without fear of repercussion. If you participate in social media, it’s likely that you will experience or have already experienced some form of harassment or hate speech. It’s the universal price of engaging with the world in the digital sphere and everyone has to make the same sacrifices right?

Wrong! A recent social experiment reveals how racism and sexism translate to the digital realm. Women, people of color, and others with marginalized identities are subjected to a greater volume of online hate speech than their white male counterparts.

In 2010, writer Jamie Nesbitt Golden decided to logon to her Twitter account and chime in on a controversy that was unfolding in the media. The responses she received were not only hate-filled, but liberally sprinkled with death threats.

Jamie_Nesbitt_Golden
Jamie Nesbitt Golden

In Spring 2014. She again had something she wanted to get off her chest about a scandal du jour, and took to Twitter.

The blowback she received got about as strong as being called a “lib-tard.” Thankfully, in the intervening years of those two tweets, the web grew up and users realized that for there to be meaningful dialogue, it is necessary to respect others’ opinions and leave room for opposing points of view.

Just kidding! Sadly, This of course did not happen. So Jamie took matters into her own hands and decided to conduct a small scale social experiment.

Nesbitt Golden changed her Twitter avatar from a photo of herself to that of a caucasian male; everything else about her account remained the same. Her bio, her handle and her tweet topics all stayed as usual. Nonetheless, the white male avatar seemed to be an all access pass to a kinder, gentler, virtual world. Once she changed her avatar back to a selfie, the race and gender specific vitriol came back.

Interesting. But as we know, a sample set of one does not constitute a scientific experiment.

Enter Mikki Kendall, a friend of Nesbitt Golden’s and fellow editor of hoodfeminism. Nesbitt Golden’s avatar switcharoo inspired Kendall to not only change her own twitter photo but also encourage people from all walks of life– black, white, male, female, etc.– to change the gender and race of their avatar too. Thus the Race Swap Experiment was born.

Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall

Kendall is used to being exposed to the nastier side of the Twitterverse.  She frequently has to block the trolls that harass her with sexist and racist rhetoric only to have them return the next day under a new account. She’s even had someone create over 40 different accounts to avoid her attempts to block him. Receiving threats of rape, stabbing and killing her family is par for the course for Kendall as she uses her social media presence to talk about high-tension topics like race-relations and abortion.

Kendall continued to write about these topics with her new avatar. The result was the same as Nesbitt Golden’s– as a white guy it became possible (or at least more possible) to have reasonable interactions with people who held opposing views. For instance when she responded to a tweet from a super-troll she had had run-ins with in the past, not only did they reply with a relatively level-headed response but were open and willing to engage in a proper, civil debate. There were angry people for certain, but never once did she see a message of gender specific violence or the invocation of race.

What of the other people who engaged in the Race Swap Experiment? Kendall says that one of the male participants who switched his avatar to a female shared that he lasted about two hours in the Twitterverse before changing back. Two hours. He was shocked by the treatment he received.

The degree to which the results of the Race Swap Experiment surprise you is likely in direct proportion to the amount of privilege you have and take for granted everyday. For many these results were hardly ground-breaking but for those who have never been on the receiving side of racialized or sexualized hostility, the Race Swap was shocking.

Nesbitt Golden still tweets as herself, but has kept a white dude avatar. Kendall says she was tempted to use things like flowers or cats but so far is still using a photo of herself.  Whatever representation these women use, neither of them will stop writing about trigger-point topics.  As Kendall said in a recent interview: “I refuse to be driven off the Internet because they want me to be driven off the Internet. You want me to be quiet? Just because you want that, now I’m not going to give it to you.

 

 

 

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