Using Twitter to Broaden Your Cultural Awareness: Does it Work?

BlogHer Original Post

Very recently, Joel Johnson decided to conduct a social experiment. The writer for Gizmodo, which is primarily a tech site, realized that he didn't know any black women and decided to follow one on Twitter. Here are some of the results from his study of the animal species of the African-American woman:

Sometimes I find her faith charming; other times it is frustratingly childish. "Thanks Lord for letting me see another day!" can be followed by a retweeted "God is THE MAN!" All that can be followed by jokes about someone being a "squirter" in bed. I try not to extrapolate about her culture from just one person's Twitter stream, but that's also sort of exactly what makes following a random person so interesting. Are black Christians more open about their sexuality? Young people? Northern people? I've just got this single data point, but it's more than I had before.

While the theme of his post seems to be coming more from naivete and ignorance than bigotry, Johnson does what a lot of people -- perhaps during a twinge of white privileged guilt -- do at some point: They stop peering at their own navel and realize that, yes, there are other people that do not look like them who actually live in the world. Perhaps even in the same neighborhood! And they walk upright, can talk, read, write and eat the same food as they do!

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 06:  In this photo illustration the Twitter website is displayed on a mobile phone on July 6, 2009 in London. The social network site started in 2006 in California as a sideline project, but has grown into a global brand becoming one of the fastest growing phenomenas of the Internet.  (Photo Illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

And just like an uncomfortable number of people, Johnson seemed to be under the assumption that by following one Black woman, he was able to solve one of the great mysteries of the world -- oh, and also, that all Black women (well in this case, all Christian Black women) must think and behave the same.

Done. Finished with the experiment.

Not surprisingly, some people were outraged. But many -- some who have probably not been unfairly judged and lumped into a racial/sexual stereotype that can (and probably does in one way or another) hinder their careers, professional and educational pursuits and other opportunities many of us take for granted -- felt that the people who questioned his logic were being "too sensitive." From a commenter:

What feeble minds! What racism? Is he trying to f-ing lynch her or something? If anything, it's you all who's accusing him of being racist who's going out to cyber-lynch. I'm a minority and I do recognize the rampant and persistent spread of racism in American culture, but it's not like those so-called racially discriminated are not racist themselves. Seriously, life is not fair and you will never live a day when all races get along with each other as if we are all brethren. Just get over it already. You all need to get brainwashed with endless episodes of Chappelle show and Mind of Mencia. America is paradise compared to other countries in terms of racism. If you don't like it go live in China you cowards.

Johnson followed up with his post "So this Hipster Tech Douche Stalks a Sexy Black Woman on Twitter" by saying that yes, you people didn't understand what I was trying to say and you are blowing it out of proportion:

Some antagonistic responses to the piece spent a lot of time constructing ornate deconstructions of things I never actually said. Many used the term "exoticization" after I acknowledged that I found this particular woman attractive. A few said I had a "black fetish", as if that were damning in and of itself.

Sorry to disappoint, but I copped to nothing of the sort. It may be a cliched, horndog thing to say, but if I have a fetish, it's a woman fetish. There's nothing the least bit "privileged" about looking at a picture that someone's put online and saying, "Yup. She's hot." If you disagree you must find the grocery checkout magazine racks harrowing, let alone spending time around actual human beings. And to toss around a term like "privilege" because a white male mentioned that he found a black female attractive is a serious depreciation of circumstance.

I don't fault Johnson for not being aware of the tenuous relationship between western notions of beauty and Black women, but the usage of "sexy," as it relates to black women in particular, does construe a notion that men would be more willing to sexualize a Black woman simply as a conquest, versus appreciating her inner beauty and intellect. Black women are not beautiful. Sexy, as they can fulfill sexual fantasies, but the buck stops there because their attractiveness will never equate into those westernized notions.

Shani-O from Postbourgie (whom Johnson mentioned in the latter post) brought up an interesting point about race and the 'Net -- especially white folks who dare to discuss race: Sometimes they forget that the online world is more culturally diverse than their real-life friends, and seem to be under the assumption that the reading audience will automatically agree with that they say:

After reading Johnson's post, I couldn't stop shuddering. My reaction was basically: "ew, ew, ew! needashowernow!" I was creeped out by the post because it read as though Johnson thought he was in a room of white dudes who don't know any black women, and he was holding court while describing The Odd Habits and Foibles of Sexy Black Women on the Internet. But instead of doing this in a private space, he did it on a well-read blog, a blog that I -- not a white dude -- read semi-regularly (though less so after all the bowing and scraping to Apple).

Tech writer Sherri L. Smith from Black Web 2.0 writes that, while perhaps Johnson was honest with his intentions in branching out in the Twitterverse, the article didn't capture it that well. After all, don't we follow people whom we feel we have something in common with, or celebrities we admire? But because of the title of the post (which I'm assuming he and his editor chose), coupled with the current racial tension in the air, the outcome was doomed from the start:

Joel and his editor either didn't understand or didn't care how this would obviously be perceived. In America where minorities are constantly looked at as "other," the author and the site decided to give an example of examining an "other" to learn about how they might work. Even if this was written with the best of intentions, the idea of using this young black Christian woman as a "data point" for hypotheses on a culture is incendiary and would obviously draw sharp criticism. Some argue, "But he also said 'Northern and Young People!'" to which I would point out that the article wasn't named "Why I stalk a Young Northern Woman on Twitter." It was an examination involving understanding race. Otherwise there would've been no need to mention it.

Do people feel more "culturally aware" via social networking? Quite frankly, I've never thought about it. My online "friends" mirror my real life: a blend of people from different cultures, sexual preferences and social/economic classes. Online, we all know each other -- most often, though, we are not real "friends" but rather people who can converse because we have a common interest or profession.

Through such passions, you can eventually find interesting things about the personal lives of your online acquaintances that you might be able to someday, develop a relationship that spans beyond a 100-character tweet. Ann at Feministing sums up Johnson's intentions (or lack thereof) very well:

You can't meaningfully diversify your social network -- online or off -- with just a couple of clicks. Your "friend list" on Facebook or Twitter might be as rainbowriffic as a college admissions brochure, but if you're not planning on developing real friendships with any of them (you know, in the I-care-about-you-and-want-to-talk-to-you way), then let's face it, those people are just window dressing. They're there to make you feel less racist. Which is, in and of itself, pretty racist.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca

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