Do Young People Get a 'Pass' To Use Racial and Sexual Slurs Online?

21 days ago

According to a recent Associated Press-MTV poll, 71% of youth between 17-24 use racial and sexual slurs online but would never consider used them in physical interactions with others, but half are unlikely to ask people to stop.  According to the article, many feel that popular social networks like Twitter and Facebook, people feel that the social barriers that make it less likely to use the same words in ‘real life’ have been lifted:

"It's so derogatory to women and demeaning, it just makes you feel gross," Lori Pletka, 22, says about "slut" and more vulgar words aimed at women. The Southeast Missouri State University senior said other terms regularly offend her online, too -- slurs for black people, Hispanics, and gays or lesbians.

Fifty-five per cent of those surveyed say they see people being mean to others on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. And 51 per cent encounter discriminatory words or images on those sites.

Image Credit: JuditK, via Flickr

Because people are less likely to ask the offenders to stop, most likely the offender doesn’t realize how their words impact others – or to be fair, perhaps they simply do not care. After all, If you are at home, or in an isolated environment typing into your computer, how likely is it that you will be physically confronted by someone who you have just offended?

For many people who have accounts on social networking sites, most only a handful are personal ‘friends’ or ‘followers,’ and the rest might be acquaintances who live far away or people who you might share interests or a job profession with. So not only are you compiling information about people that you might not personally know, you also get to know the people that your ‘friend’ are ‘friends’ with. You are privy to comments and attitudes that might not correlate with your interests or philosophies, but in order to keep you ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ count (i.e. online social status) you might observe some comments and behaviour that is at best, questionable, and at worst, horribly offensive. I found out the hard way through the ‘friends’ of a ‘Facebook friend’ that my friend was not a friend at all ( I know, confusing.....)

A few months ago, a former friend on Facebook made some disparaging remarks  about Black women on Facebook. I quickly responded, writing him that what he had said was offensive. However, this former friend got defensive, rolled out the “you’re the one with the problem” defense and to my dismay, a number of his White female friends piled on, and also disparaged Black women – me in particular  – for calling him out. Within the span of a half-hour, our two-year friendship (an outside of Facebook one) was detroyed. Through mutual friends I found out that he is still portraying himself as the victim, and I as the ‘Bitch’ for daring to challenge him. Interestingly enough, I saw him in Texas a month after the incident (and before I found out he was calling me out behind my back) and he went out of his way to avoid me. See, it’s easy to insult someone it when you are sitting at home, thousands of miles away from your target, but not so easy to do it in person.

It’s one thing when an average person makes disparaging comments online, but when a celebrity uses slurs in social media, the effects are magnified exponentially. Actor Alec Baldwin recently raised the ire of the Twitterverse when he proclaimed his love of  “Ni**a in Paris,” a song off of Jay Z and Kanye West’s new album, Watch the Throne:

As you can tell from his second to last response, there were followers who didn’t get the context of Baldwin’s tweet, in which he simply mentioned the title of the song. Because of what he followed up with, it (at least to me) it also signified that he was trying to be funny.  Because Baldwin is a well-known actor and because of his outspokenness on political and social issues a controversial figure, the miniscule event was broadcasted around the world but also cracked open a wound that refuses to heal: Can white people say the N word, or does it depend on the context?

While it seems impossible to exact a ban of words like  “Ni**er,” “Slut,” and “Whore” and other racial / sexual slurs out of the English vocabulary, as those who commonly use those slurs seem to get some temporary sense of satisfaction in exacting their cruelty, context of word usage is important. It’s used to differentiate when people like Baldwin are repeating a song title that two African-American men conceived. So who is at fault here?

Baldwin’s defensive rebuttal is completely wrong, but a common response. 

And this is the problem, especially with the onset of online bullying among teens and young people, as we know how impactful words can be, especially when the victim is a teenager who hasn’t yet built the inner-confidence to shrug them off. With relative anonymity and the technological ease of telling the world what you feel and realizing that there will be little to no consequences, why the hell not? We live in a world rife with hypocrisy: where those who object to being called nasty names are told that they are too sensitive; ‘racist’ because their objections somehow mean that they are the ones who hold impure thoughts and exact racist actions; and because, as the Associated Press report mentions, there are many people who do not bother to respond to those who use offensive remarks in their postings, the insults and threats are not taken seriously. After all, if you were a shoplifter and got away with stealing items for years, why would you stop unless you were arrested?

However, there are people who have faced the ire when they have posted racist and / or sexist slurs or remarks on Twitter.  In November of 2010, a Brazilian law student lost her internship and faced a criminal charge when she slandered the poor region of San Paulo, a predominately Black and ethnic community when she was upset that a left-wing politician had won an election.  In August of this year, a policeman in New Mexico was fired after he posted racist tweets about the Muslim community.

For both of these people, their professional positions seem to be an integral part of why they lost their jobs – but what young people who are commonly thought not to have the emotional or intellectual capacity to cause such harm? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is

Writer: Exclaim! Canada:

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