Having a race is one long math equation. When you speak well and choose the right fork you can be a credit to “your race”. And so, of course, there must be actions that are a debit – a detriment – to one’s race. The list there is long. One can use profanity, wear designer labels, wear cheap clothes, have long fingernails, put rims on their car, not have a car, play basketball, not play basketball, speak loudly, speak often, speak directly, speak. These are all situations when people with race have been chastised for not just their individual moral failings but for being a tick mark in the great game of Race, with its debit and credit columns.
As a person with race – that hyper-visible political designation of biology, culture and history – I thought about the great game of Race this week. The occasion was, of all things, a discussion on Twitter about the ethics of firing someone for making a mistake on social media. Elizabeth Lauten was the communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) last week when she took to Facebook to chastise and bully Sasha and Malia Obama for their display of low class at the annual tradition of crock that is the presidential turkey pardon ceremony. Lauten’s post is an odd statement. Lauten is 31-years-old but she talks to 16-year-old Malia and 13-year-old Sasha as if they are peers. There are several hallmarks of what has been called “mean girl” behavior. There is the thinly-veiled “slut shaming” based on their clothing and an elitist nod to their bad breeding. The language is derisive. The tone is passive aggressive. The slander is implicit but no less ominous in its message: these children are a disgrace.
What followed Lauten’s bad taste and weird imaginary dialogue with two children was a case study in social media and who has the privilege of being an individual. Users shared and re-shared Lauten’s comments on Twitter. In the parlance of the medium, the Facebook Faux Pas became a meme. Like gossip or a phone tree, jokes and commentary about Lauten traveled through social network nodes, magnified by hashtags that aggregated these messages and amplified their reach. By the time Monday rolled around Lauten had, in order: changed her Facebook settings, deleted the original post, posted a subsequent apology, made all of her Facebook content private, deleted her work affiliations, and issued her resignation. It took me longer to defrost and destroy the Thanksgiving turkey than it did for Twitter users to nudge Lauten into infamy and obscurity.
Some credited “black Twitter” for Lauten’s eventual resignation. I am slower to credit the decentralized, networked phenomenon of African American Twitter users with these kinds of ambiguous wins. For one, black Twitter is not a terrorist group in a bad action movie that takes credit for acts of mass destruction. I would rather not reinforce that narrative. It flattens complex interactions into dichotomies of “good guys” and “bad guys”. When you have race, dichotomies are never apolitical. And for all the valuable, enjoyable, informative, free labor black users provide for social media platforms and the media that engages black Twitter for cheap content, black political power is fragile. I never want to buy black Twitter’s own press, as it were. As Sara Seltzer recently pointed out, buying the press can blind us to the dire political realities that cannot be solved with social media messaging alone. Also, I would rather not have one more “black” space where just being human is marked deviant.
Some very smart people have wondered aloud if people should lose their jobs for being stupid on social media. Concerns abound about social media “draggings” that take credit for rooting out racists and making them pay. A year ago the conversation was about Justine Sacco. Sacco was a public relations executive for IAC when she tweeted a “joke” about AIDS and Africans before boarding a flight to South Africa. By the time Sacco landed she was jobless. Folks wanted to credit that one to black Twitter, too. And there was some hemming and hawing, especially among the media elite, that Twitter bullying had run amok. Black Twitter was fine for the jokes and for the news aggregation it provides content farms like daily newspapers, new media websites, and cable programming. Black Twitter might even be useful as an entertaining and safely experienced version of a civil rights movement when hashtags and memes are directed at police brutality, for instance. But, something about Black Twitter leading charges to have people like Lauten and Sacco fired makes people uncomfortable. Who among us has not been stupid or inappropriate on platforms that seem designed to make us be as stupid and inappropriate as possible? The fear is that this sets a terrible precedent of witch-hunts for good people who make a few mistakes.
I am very sensitive to that argument. I’ve been the witch and I have been the hunted. Neither are great fun but being the hunted is especially horrible. As sensitive as I am to the fear of mob rule on social media that affects livelihoods, something kept me from chiming in on the post-mortems of black Twitter gone wild. I suppose it is because I have race. Once, I applied for a crappy job. Despite being credentialed and experienced, the owner of the company told me that he had hired “a black” before and she quit without giving two weeks notice. The owner was “understandably” anxious about hiring another black. Understandably. When you have “a race” you are always standing in the gap for all the people with a race. The race math of credits and debits hinges on the understanding that those with race are interchangeable. The credits and debits are how individuals pay for the sins of the group, be those sins imagined or real; historical or immediate; of consequence or not.
White people, by and large, do not have a race. They belong to a racial category, of course. They have a history of race. They perform race every day. But having race is about not having the power to count the tick marks in the debit and credit columns. With no one to count the tick marks, white people get to be just persons. I thought of that when Twitter users made Lauten a hashtag. I thought it must be horrible to have always been a person only to one day discover that you not only have race but that you are not a credit to your race.
I get why people would not like that. Being stripped of your personhood to stand in the gap for a group of people against your will is rage inducing. It simmers through your veins. You are ceaselessly primed for every implication that you have become another tick mark when you were busy living and laughing and being a wholly fallible human being. It is horrible to lose a job for that. It is a privilege to have never before lost a job for that.
I also get why people who have always stood in the gap are unsympathetic to persons who are brokers of power. And ultimately I think that is what social media dragging is about. Most of the actors in these moments want to force those with the privilege of individuality to, on occasion, stand in the gap for the sins of whiteness the way black persons specifically are always stand-ins for the sins of blackness.
The defining question for me is when is a person also a role or an agent of structural violence? It is a fuzzy line, for sure. But it is a line many of us can sense. It is why people who were angry about Lauten’s high profile criticism of Sasha and Malia Obama were less comfortable about subsequent investigations into Lauten’s juvenile criminal record. The former seemed to be about Lauten’s role and the latter was clearly about Lauten. And so these questions go. When is a kid spouting off vile racism to get attention and when is a person’s social media rant a window into the ugly vitriol that organizes the State, the police, polities, and economies? These are really fundamental social science questions, by the way. Sometimes the only way we can observe systems is to observe the people in them and separating the two is nearly impossible but the best we can do. I do not know the answer but I think these are questions worth asking. And maybe having a set of questions to ask is better than what we’ve got, if not all that we wish we could do.
There is always collateral damage when individuals become stand-ins for groups and histories. That is what Lauten discovered and what black people always know and what social media memes leverage in the war of cultural narratives. The right lesson may be, “no one should ever go through this” rather than, “how could they do this to me“. There should perhaps be checks for excesses but making the Lautens of the world equivalent to people resisting their marginalization conflates the tyranny of majority rule with minority resistance. Wanting to solve social media “lynching” first for powerful persons is pretty low-hanging fruit on a tree with far more vulnerable bodies on the branches.