The following piece is an article I wrote for The School of the New York Times while enrolled in the class, Writing About Youth Culture: Race, Identity and Social Behavior:
In early May, a court case hit the New York City news, in which a mother decided to take legal action against a private, Long Island Catholic school for their lack of action when her son, Devin, was victimized by racial slurs and tropes in a group chat. Devin’s mother, Ursula Moore, according to abc7NY, has filed a federal lawsuit. Devin was subjected to texts reading “black people are not functioning members of society” and photoshopped images of his own face on a gorilla as well as on a Nazi soldier. Based on information from NY Daily News, the boys sending these messages to Devin operated through an app called Discord, that is generally used by gamers for communicating amongst themselves. According to the Discord website, the app used allows for what the company calls a “voice and text chat”, in which several people can join a channel and send messages to each other.
This app is the perfect tool for white supremacists to find bonds amongst themselves over shared racism: to defend each other, to fuel each other’s views, and ultimately, to find a community in which they can be understood and respected for their viewpoints (twisted ones, albeit). With the invention of the Internet, geographic boundaries and different time zones are not an issue for them.
Devin and I may be from opposite sides of the United States, we may be three years apart in age, we may be of different ethnic backgrounds, but one thing we share is victimhood. Cyber racism.
This past April, a private group chat surfaced at my school, similar to the one that emerged at Devin’s. This one had been going on for over a year, unbeknownst to the larger student body. One of the individuals who was in the chat got cold feet and showed the chat to the administration and victims. Within this chat, many juniors participated in racist, homophobic and hateful behaviors towards specific individuals in my grade, including myself and my friends. They talked about killing my friends, used the n-word repeatedly, compared black students to monkeys and slaves, talked about "lynching negroes", made light of the Holocaust, used Nazi rhetoric, and more. Their language was often threatening, violent and frightening.
White supremacists, years before the Internet, before they could digitally hurt people like Devin and myself, used to unite their cause through printed newsletters, in which they would contribute their writings and find common interest in each other’s racism; this is a perfect example of how before the innovation of the Internet, white supremacists were bound by geography, Dr. Jessie Daniels, sociology professor and author, tells me over the phone.
“They could organize across geographic boundaries but it was much more difficult in print only”, says Daniels, who has written numerous publications regarding race relations, one of which is the book Cyber Racism, about the nuances of racism in cyberspace, “A part of what I documented in the Cyber Racism book is the rise of translocal whiteness...that people are finding community, and finding it around race...The problem comes when it’s white people doing that because they’re organizing around a particular ideology about race, which is white supremacy.”
Following the use of papers and newsletters to unite racist communities came hate organizations with geographical centers spread throughout any given area. I spoke on the phone with Shannon Martinez, a former member of a neo-Nazi organization who now works to rehabilitate people who have assumed the hateful lifestyle she managed to leave. “The same driving factors that drive people into a cult are the same things that drive them into gangs and white supremacy and Jihadism...they’re looking for a sense of belonging, on the fence of that surrogate family,” says Martinez, who also once found community built through the racism of an extremist organization.
Now, one of the most popular forms of meeting other like-minded individuals is the World Wide Web. The Internet has been conducive to the formation of digital communities via online group chats, social media apps, and websites; oftentimes, these communities find a connecting point in racism, as Daniels and Martinez mentioned. Before the development of social media and the popularization of online chat groups, most racists migrated to Stormfront, a website advocating white power and supremacy over all else. “Basically what’s going on now with the algorithms and with social media is...white supremacists have lots of other places to go besides Stormfront. And part of what they’re doing is they make sport out of particular kinds of online spaces,” says Daniels.
White people have colonized online avenues and formed communities since Stormfront, namely communities in group texting and communication applications. They use these applications to form a sense of community with one another by building off of each other’s racism, as was the case with Devin and myself.
In the group chat present at my school, each member used the racist rhetoric spewed by someone before them to further press their own hateful ideology. They worked together to build racist arguments in effort to form ties with one another and create a sense of trust within the chat.
I spoke to Ms. Moore and Devin over the phone and asked Devin if he felt that the boys in the group chat ganged up on him and used each other as fuel. Devin told me that the boys in the chat worked together with one another to create the photoshopped images of him, and described the dynamic of the chat as “three against one”. Ms. Moore added that the use of Discord, of the Internet, was what allowed them to actually enact such racism towards Devin in the first place. She said that they “banded together and it (the Internet) gave them the courage to do it”. The Internet, the group chat, allowed the bullies to form an insular community in which a rhetoric of white supremacy was developed and shared.
I’ve been on a mission to find out the “why” behind all of this, to figure out why young people are racist on the Internet. One of my teachers told me to give up; she told me that I could spend my whole life wondering why and never get anywhere closer to an answer. But I think I’ve found my answer. I talked to Daniels about my personal experience and about Devin’s, and she offered me this: “...I think with your experience with your high school classmates perfectly illustrates the point...they were enacting racism with each other as a kind of form of bonding and in this way that was damaging to their classmates.”