October is National Bullying Prevention Month. This combined with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 makes this an opportune time for me to share my first-hand experience with racism online.
In September of 2009, I was 3 weeks into my first year of highschool. I remember being busy with typical high school stuff; adjusting to a new intense class schedule, learning how to use a locker and of course, trying to make friends and navigate the social scene.
On a Wednesday evening after dinner with my family, I, like any teenager my age at that time, logged on to Facebook to see what I had missed in my hour offline. I had 1 new notification. I had been tagged in a photo, alongside three other Black girls, by a boy in my grade I barely knew. Although I had no idea what the photo could possibly be, something about the situation didn’t seem right to me and I felt my heart rate quicken. I clicked the notification to discover an edited photo illustrating a face in the midst of evolution from man to monkey with the caption “why do y’all look like this lol”.
It was devastating for me. I was 12 - all I had wanted, like everyone else, was to fit in. As 1 of only 10 African Canadians in my school of 800+ students, I was already finding it difficult. The photo that this boy posted and tagged me in exacerbated the situation; I stood out even more and making friends was harder than ever. The following weeks were a blur of principal office visits, concerned parents, and hard conversations. I learned that it had been a group of boys at a party who had decided together to create and post the picture as opposed to just one acting alone. This made me feel even worse as I realized it was not an isolated opinion or person but a collective. I couldn’t understand why people I didn’t even know would go out of their way to target me and these other girls in such a racist way. It significantly negatively impacted the trajectory of my high school experience.
The emergence of a digital world has led to a shift in the ecosystem of racism. Social media and online interactions allow for the flourishing of racial-ethnic based cyberbullying. This is due to the accessible anonymity, inherent disconnectedness, and lack of appropriate consequences in digital environments. Online racial discimination can vary from exclusion of individuals from online spaces on the basis of race as well as the creation of negative misrepresentation and presentations of racial groups through symbols, voice, video, images, text or graphics. One US study that surveyed approximately 1000 minority youth found that 64% had experienced at least one discriminatory incident within the year. The top two most common incidents reported by these youth included being shown racist images online and observing fellow youth using racist language online.
The prevalence of racial discimination in online spaces highlights a particularly difficult aspect of racism that is individual and bias based. While it is critical to educate youth about the importance of being kind online, it is just as critical to help youth understand that racism - be it online or otherwise - is not acceptable.
The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement has proven to be the largest global anti-racism movement in history. For what seems like the first time, various levels of society have committed to engaging in necessary dialogue about the various dynamics of race and the oppressive lived experiences of minorities. Canadian leaders have been addressing the implications of racial injustice within our systems and various democractic, educational, justice, and health institutions. While these types of dialogues are integral to push for equality, it is also important to recognize how race based bias at the individual level perpetuates inequality and upholds racism as a social construct. Racial biases are held by individuals, taught by communities, and transcended across generations and ultimately results in the bias based cyberbullying of our minority children. Society does not stand a chance on the path to dismantling racial discrimination if we do not take the time as individuals and as local communities to question, challenge, and change the biases that we hold surrounding race. It is important, maybe now more than ever, that parents, teachers, community leaders take the time to speak with our children and youth about race and inequality in order for change to be realized.
We’ve compiled some great resources that can help you drive real change by becoming more informed and starting a dialogue with your kids (or students if you’re an educator):
For Teachers/Community Leaders