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How online comments matter, and Black lives so often don't

I recently read an article at Uppercutting about a WTF_was_that_racist Tweet by sports journalist Jason Whitlock. The article is about the use of a "racist dog whistle" and the risk of lending credibility to white supremacists by making that sort of statement as a black person. The piece is well worth reading. But what inspired me to write here is what I found in the comments area.

Many people respond to terrible things that are written in online comment threads by saying something like, "Ugh! Never read the comments." I disagree with this stance. Comment threads are where you get to see how people actually think. After all, online commenters are actual people, fellow citizens of our country. While it's easy and perhaps preferable to think that the people who work with and around us are the Good People, and that racist online comments are left by Bad People. But people are people. 

The more I've learned about the history and nature of racism, the more easily I can see that there is no such thing as Good People who do Good Things. The fact of the matter is that good, upstanding citizens do absolutely terrible things, and have throughout all history. Slave owners weren't Bad People. They were the venerated men who founded this country

Modern-day racists follow no special form of racism. The racism behind online comments is one and the same as the racism that has resulted in science being a mostly white enterprise in our country. Racism isn't the provenance big, scary monsters living under the beds of Black people. Racism is something propagated by everyday folk, the good, upstanding citizens of our country. 

So, yeah, I don't really have the privilege of not noticing the comments. If I turn away, I miss out on key data bout how the world around me works.

Now, back to the Uppercutting article's comment section:

Go back to that comment and read that sentence ("Yet people are so outraged and shocked each time a black person is killed by a cop.") Imagine that instead of "black person" the 18-year-old who was killed---and to whom the commenter is presumably referring---was an 18-year-old white girl who was going to Yale next year. Try saying that sentence in this slightly revised scenario: "Yet people are so outraged and shocked each time a white girl is killed by a cop." Somehow it doesn't roll off the tongue so easily, does it?

The inability to transfer that sentence across race lines is precisely where American racism lives. The commenter, "Dirtyheat," is probably someone old enough to have held this thought longer than the moment she/he wrote it, and that it likely went unchallenged each time they expressed it. For many Good white people, this sort of thinking, expressed aloud may at first glance seem anomalous. "What?! In 2014?!" But the fact is, the comment is so ordinary that most people wouldn't even notice it unless it was explicitly pointed out to them. Forget Donald Sterling's use of the N-word (gasp!). No, this is the everyday racism that is absolutely everywhere. 

Whether or not a Black person can see it and explicitly name it for what it is, this sort of everyday racism affects them because they are human, trained to respond to general social cues just the same as any other human. The message from white people expressing this sort of "outrage against outrage" sends a clear and powerful message to Black people, especially when it goes unchallenged by other white people. It says that Black people can be killed by the cops and it's no big deal. It's just part of the "grand scheme of things." It simply does. Not. Matter. That hurts, it adds up, and it has huge effects on the psyches of Black people. 

Say it with me: Black lives matter!

Now please say it to that fellow white person on your Facebook thread.



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