From the New York Times:
Asking interviewees who said they were black to show me their faces filled me with discomfort. That was the point.
Thousands of users submitted photos to the Black People Twitter subreddit moderators showing their skin color and user names — and in some cases, other things suggestive of black identity, like hair and skin care products.
By Amy Harmon
Oct. 8, 2019, 5:03 p.m. ET
Like most reporters, I try to confirm what my interview subjects say even when I have little reason to doubt them. …
But my recent reporting on racial tensions in a popular Reddit forum was the only time I have asked to see the faces of interviewees who said they were black. (I am white.) Doing so filled me with a discomfort that I came to recognize as the conflict at the heart of my article. It also made for some big reveals.
… Few users of the one I was writing about, Black People Twitter, would disclose their real names, so I couldn’t search the web for a picture. Nor could I be sure I wasn’t falling for a devious scheme by the subreddit’s volunteer moderators to certify white users as black. Yikes.
With nearly four million subscribers, Black People Twitter is one of the few large, public online discussion forums about black American life, and its moderators had instituted a policy that was drawing criticism from Reddit users across the political spectrum: On heated threads, they had announced, participation of white users would be limited.
As part of an ongoing effort by The Times’s National desk to explore how technology is shaping our interactions around race, and vice versa, I reached out to the subreddit’s moderators — using, at first, various forms of text messages. They told me the policy arose partly from complaints that black users had raised over comments that routinely characterized racial inequality as natural, nonexistent or the fault of black Americans. It would also, they hoped, make it harder for white users to pass themselves off as black, a practice they believed was not uncommon.
Mainly, though, it was meant to combat what one called the “subtle expression of privilege” that led to white voices dominating discussions in a subreddit devoted to humor and commentary about black life.
… Critics accused the moderators of racism for lumping together white users with disparate opinions on issues like police violence and systemic racism, of shutting down debate, of retreating to “a giant echo chamber.” “Yeah, I get it, I’ll never understand what it’s like to be black,” wrote the user bobbymcprescott, “but removing a non-racist comment because I’m white is just childish.”
Supporters replied that it could be useful for white Reddit users to experience being rejected based on their skin color, and pointed to the thousands of black users celebrating the move as evidence that it filled a need. “Reddit is full of mostly white subreddits,” they wrote in a public post. “We have Black People Twitter.”
The importance of knowing someone’s race when the conversation is about race was not lost on me. I had asked all my sources their race by phone or text, because it was clearly relevant to the article. “Are you living this or are you just commenting on it?” as Mr. Moreno put it. I also understood that the appeal to democratic ideals by white Reddit users read to many black Reddit users as a particular flavor of what has been called “white fragility,” the trademark inability of white Americans to meaningfully own their unearned privilege. “You feel the entitlement that it’s your space, that you need to be the voice to tell the story,” said Tony Hinderman, a visually-verfied-by-me black Black People Twitter user, “when it’s really not your story.”
As a reporter who has written about forms of racism both subtle and less so over the past year, and as a sentient human being, I was under no illusion that we were living in a post-racial society. Still, the mere act of asking for proof of someone’s race felt like a violation of a taboo I had internalized growing up and perhaps also in my time as a reporter covering the late 1990s internet. The techno-utopians of that era, the digital culture scholar Andre Brock of the Georgia Institute of Technology reminded me, held the dual beliefs that democracy thrives only when free speech is near-absolute and that internet-enabled anonymity would strip away the biases, racial and otherwise, impeding that freedom. It’s possible I had come closer than I would like to admit to having been one of them.
For now, though, we have an internet where white people, sometimes posing as black people, can actively sow racial division, and a democracy, according to a recent Pew Research study, in which black and white adults have widely different perceptions about the fairness with which black Americans are treated.
“A lot of colorblind ideology has been manifested online,” Dr. Brock said. “But it ignores the powerful role that whiteness has in shaping everyday existence in this country.” …
So then Amy double checks to see if Black People Twitter isn’t actually a giant conspiracy to empower white racists. She make people she is quoting going visually verify their blackness for her:
The Black People Twitter moderators, I concluded, were not dispensing check marks to white people so as to imbue their views with a counterfeit authority.
Whew! That’s good news! Now we can all rest assured that James D. Watson isn’t logging in to Black People Twitter from the nursing home to make Amy look bad.
In the woke future, social media will require all users to take a DNA test to prove their racial bonafides.