The Internet and its Racism Problem

The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. The internet has a racism problem; a very large racism problem. The internet has made being a racist easier than ever. From the comfort of your home, you can spew all manner of hate and if you choose, no one near you in online life will know just how hateful you are.

This week, the internet’s dirty little racism problem went viral after it was revealed that Ghostbusters star and comedian Leslie Jones was leaving Twitter after dealing with a continuous flow of online hatred. Sadly, Leslie’s plight is not unfamiliar to any person of color who chooses to participate in online squares such as Twitter or Facebook. Twitter made the unprecedented decision to ban Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology editor at the conservative news site Breitbart News. Yiannaopoulus was apparently the ringmaster in sending internet trolls to Jones’ digital door.  This decision shows that after years of user complaints that Twitter may be getting serious about trolls who use their site.

I must confess, though, that the changes can’t come soon enough for me. I am no stranger to being on the receiving end of internet hate but this week pushed me to my personal breaking point.

Apparently a former local Conservative radio host has been paying attention to me since last year when my family’s horrible moment with racism went viral. This fellow, whom I am not going to name other than to say that in over a decade he had made a name for himself on local Maine radio for being a Conservative, reached out to me last year asking to do an interview with me and I declined. In my world, that should have been the end of the connection but apparently the now-former radio host took to following me across all my social media channels waiting for a chance to cause harm or, as he has expressed, show the world what a fraud I am.

Well this week, this man finally got the chance to stick it to me good. In the wake of last week’s Black Lives Matters protest in Portland, the local CBS/Fox affiliate decided to host a live town hall discussion on racism. Participants included Portland’s mayor, police chief, and other community folks including yours truly. I shared the news on my social media channels in advance of the event, as I often do when I have public speaking appearances and that’s when things went downhill.

Within minutes of tweeting about the upcoming show, he retweeted me with the hashtag #Mustseehatetv and from that moment on, I have been inundated with hateful people showing up in my digital spaces. I tried to reach out to this man (even with an offer to speak in person with him) as did my estranged husband (to tell him to leave me alone and stop hate-following both us, since he never responded to my offer and was clearly not interested in discussion) and our attempts at civility fell on deaf ears. My son, who has a verified Twitter account, in a fit of rage even tweeted this man.  I found myself on a treasure trail of hate where I discovered a group of people in Maine who are beyond vile who seem to delight in cutting people down and engaging in behavior that borders on stalking, given that these people seem to know and recall an awful lot of details about my life. I would be lying if I said some of these things that I read didn’t piss me off or, to be blunt, make me cry. Actually I cried in my wine and smoked cigarettes and just wondered: Who are these people? Who are these miserable sons of bitches who would seek to deny others their humanity? Who would label a round table discussion about race that included the city’s mayor and police chief as something that would be hateful?

I am not everyone’s cup of tea, I will always admit that. Yet I have for over 20 years after my faith walk dedicated my life to making this world just a little better. I have worked with people of all walks in several states. Homeless people of all races. At-risk children (mostly white) from low-income families. I am not a perfect soul, far from it, but I try to live with honesty and integrity and to bring my best self to anything that I do. To see people delighting in causing harm? Even for this hardened seen-it-all Chicago gal, it shook me. It shook me so much that when the evening came for this town hall, I went in subdued and scared.

The conversation was as fruitful as such a conversation can be given the nature of television (only an hour and six people at the round-table plus two news hosts) and hey, I got free water and a nice new round of internet abuse.  You can check the video out here if talks of race in Maine are of interest.

I find myself longing for the good ole days when a racist had to have the guts to call you a nigger to your face. No, the internet emboldens people to act in a way that we think twice about in person, in part because the internet is slow to punish for abusive behavior and too often those engaging in abusive behavior refuse to even grasp that their behavior is harmful. As someone who writes for the general public, my skin is hardly thin yet in the era of Trump, we are seeing an increase in blatantly racist behavior.

One of the many changes that I am making in my digital spaces is closing comments on the blog, at least for now. However, I am always accessible by email. Thank you for sharing this space with me.
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