When I first started teaching at Princeton, a smart phone app, Yik Yak, was still popular among my students. It was founded in 2013 and allowed users to post anonymously while voting “up” and voting “down” others’ posts, and was designed to be used by people within a five-mile radius. It was especially popular on college campuses and, like other social media sites, the app reinforced and exposed racism and anti-Black hatred among young people. As in Internet comments sections more broadly, people often say on Yik Yak what they would not say in person, and so all pretense of racial progress is washed away by spending just five minutes perusing the posts.
But the difference from other virtual encounters is that users know that the racist views on Yik Yak are held by people in close proximity – those you pass in the dorm, make small talk with in the dining hall, work with on a class project. I logged on to see what my students were dealing with, but quickly found the toxicity to consist overwhelmingly of … racist intellectualism, false equivalences, elite entitlement, and just plain old ignorance in peak form. White supremacy upvoted by a new generation … truly demoralizing for a teacher. So I had to log off.
Racism, I often say, is a form of theft. Yes, it has justified the theft of land, labor, and life throughout the centuries. But racism also robs us of our relationships, stealing our capacity to trust one another, ripping away the social fabric, every anonymous post pilfering our ability to build community. I knew that such direct exposure to this kind of unadulterated racism among people whom I encounter every day would quickly steal my enthusiasm for teaching. The fact is, I do not need to be constantly exposed to it to understand that we have a serious problem – exposure, as I discussed it in previous chapters, is no straightforward good. My experience with Yik Yak reminded me that we are not going to simply “age out” of White supremacy, because the bigoted baton has been passed and a new generation is even more adept at rationalizing racism.
Yik Yak eventually went out of business in 2017, but what I think of as NextGen Racism is still very much in business … more racially coded than we typically find in anonymous posts. Coded speech, as we have
seen, reflects particular power dynamics that allow some people to impose their values and interests upon others. As one of my White male students wrote – in solidarity with the Black Justice League, a student group that was receiving hateful backlash on social media after campus protests:
To change Yik Yak, we will have to change the people using it. To change those people, we will have to change the culture in which they – and we – live. To change that culture, we’ll have to work tirelessly and relentlessly towards a radical rethinking of the way we live – and that rethinking will eventually need to involve all of us.
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