There’s an ongoing conversation about race and racism on social media — but white people are missing most of it.
A Pew Research Center report released Monday asked Americans who identified as black, white, and Hispanic about how much they post about race, and how much content they see about it.
Pew studied “social media users” (those who answered “yes” to the question, “Do you ever use a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter?”) and found that, overall, only four in 10 people surveyed said “at least a few” of the posts they personally share are about race or “race relations.” Sixty percent said none of their social media postings ever touch the subject.
That seems unsurprising. After all, for many, race is a topic that is too sensitive and controversial to discuss publicly. Some people would rather not know what their online “friends” think. Others likely want to avoid a confrontation in the comments, and go silent on this topic as well as on things like politics and religion that could bring out clashing opinions.
But according to this new report, the degree of a user’s avoidance is itself related to his or her race.
A lot of social media dialogue about race is happening among black people
Not everyone is choosing animal videos and vacation pictures over commentary about race and racism. Pew found that black social media users are more likely than white or Hispanic users to use social media to discuss race. Twenty-eight percent of black social media users say at least some of the things they share or post on social networking sites are about race or race relations. One in five Hispanic respondents say the same.
Meanwhile, only 8 percent of white social media users say that at least some of things they share or post are about race relations, with a large majority (67 percent) saying they don’t venture into this area.
And it looks like black social media users who opt out of sharing their own race-related posts are still much more likely to see this content in their feed than their white counterparts. “Even among black social media users who say they rarely or never discuss race relations or racial inequality, a majority (55 percent) state that most or some of the posts they see on social media pertain to race or race relations. That share drops to 23 percent for their white counterparts,” according to Pew.
That means many white users are missing out on the important debates, analysis, and awareness-raising content that Pew found, in another part of the study, is often responsive to breaking news about racial injustice and draws attention to concerns about things like diversity and representation. For example, the researchers found that six in 10 race-related tweets were tied to current events, and that Twitter’s most active days for discussing race were inspired by topics like a white supremacist’s attack on a Charleston church, deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and related demonstrations.
White people should get into the conversation
"White people think race is something outside themselves, and they don't consider themselves a race," Whitney Dow, the 53-year-old filmmaker behind the Whiteness Project, an interactive investigation designed to explore how Americans who identify as white think about and experience their ethnicity, said in an interview with Vox last year.
There are some signs that that idea — that white people have an identity worth thinking about, and a natural stake in tackling racism — is beginning to take hold.
In MTV's 2015 documentary White People, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas traveled the country to interview a cross section of young white Americans: teachers at a predominantly Native American elementary school, a kid from an all-white town who attends a historically black college, a recent high school graduate who frets that she's missed out on scholarships because of her race, and the leader of a workshop on white privilege. Their narratives were supplemented by interviews with experts, plus statistics and charts about demographics and attitudes that flash across the screen.
The point? "We cannot have an honest and real conversation about race in America if we can't talk about what being white means in America," Vargas told the LA Times in a pre-premiere interview.
Then there are lower-profile examples of white Americans’ efforts to invest in conversations about race. Meetup.com's Boston Knapsack Anti-Racism Group, which I wrote about last year, is just one of the many groups around the country that includes white people who are committed to racial justice.
Many of its members likely share an outlook with white demonstrators seen holding “White silence = violence” signs at many recent protests against racialized police violence.
Meanwhile, in an effort to reach the next generation, New York City's private Fieldston Lower School implemented a program in 2015 that splits up kids, starting in third grade, into racial "affinity groups," where they are encouraged to have frank conversations about their identities and experiences, and then reunite for a curriculum designed to "foster interracial empathy."
What makes the program unique is that it isn't just for the black, Latino, and Asian students. White students have their own group, too — and participation is mandatory. Mariama Richards, the school administrator behind the program, told New York magazine's Lisa Miller that when other schools have affinity groups, "they send the white kids to recess." But true integration, she said, "doesn't happen if only half the people are talking about it.”
"What I am suggesting is that we all have skin in the game. I'm suggesting that we all need to be involved in this conversation," Richards said.
That’s hard to argue with. And social media seems like an easy place to start.