Authors note: My previous work on the OSU Speak-Out be found at www.medium.com/jamesathomasiv
Race as social construct
Race, better defined as an ethnic group, is a term that originated during the European colonization of the United States (Marger, 2015; Rajagopalan, Nelson, Fujimora, 2016). Conversation of the longstanding debates in American history around race and science can invoke an argument rather quickly, as truly objective scientific research on race has been contested, with knowledge production itself largely controlled by the “white male” or the Euro-American male — the racial ethnic group found with the most power in America (Marger, 2015; Rajagopalan, Nelson, Fujimora, 2016). As a term itself, race, has been found to be more of a social construct, and a tool for domination, than a scientific classification. The definitions of who is a certain race in America has changed over the course of Americas history, casting doubt that race is an objective form of human classification. Examples of this include Italians, and the Irish, who were discriminated against upon immigration to America in the 18th and 19th centuries — both groups, now considered white in America, were considered non-white in early American colonization (Marger, 2015). The problem of race in America is not the classification of people based on their ethnicity, it is much more complex than that. American society functions with systems of power and inequality (Marger, 2015). Dominant groups in America can use race to keep their dominance in politics, the media, and in popular culture. Social mobility, that is, movement between different social classes, is limited, making it difficult for people to break away from the classes, race, and other group society has placed them in (Marger, 2015, p. 40).
Nissenbaum & Shifman (2015), published an article titled “Internet memes as contested cultural capital: The case of 4chan’s /b/ board,” which researched connections between use of the website 4chan, and how a culture around correct use of memes illuminates a chance to explore the space of the internet through the lens of cultural capital. Various definitions of cultural capital can be provided given the many technological contexts and situations; for this literature review, I found the following definition by Nissenbaum & Shifman (2015) to be useful:
Cultural capital encompasses the advantages of a knowledge of culture and the social implications of cultural taste. Recognizing and understanding cultural items, references, and codes, along with the ability to implement them independently, generate respect and status from those in one’s social surroundings. (p. 4)
With anonymous users of the internet distributing meme’s, and other seemingly harmless content — bullying, racism, hate speech, and other offensive and threatening activity often goes unnoticed when simply labeled as “trolling” (Phillips, 2015). Whitney Phillip’s (2015) book, This is why we can’t have nice things, offers a vivid view of what it is like in the world of online trolling (e.g. hating, harassing, bullying). Phillip’s (2015) research suggested that the term “Trolling” is often associated with “fun” by some internet users (Phillips, 2015). This is a disturbing form of fun, when we recall that the internet was built with the Euro-American user in mind (Daniels, 2009; a clash of cultural capital occurs when members that are not fluent in the meme culture found on websites like 4chan interact or become engaged with the internet communities of 4chan (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2015) — this is also found in society, when social groups notice those who lack cultural capital by observing their behaviors and interactions with there group, comparing them to the norms, which are often hard or impossible to learn by those in non-dominant groups (Marger, 2015).
While many who seek the heightened freedom and anonymity that online connectivity provides have more productive goals (such as those involved in activism or whistle-blowing), the increased freedom and anonymity also applies to those who seek to exploit others and engage in the problematic cultural shift (Phillips, 2015). Furthermore, the internet is seen largely as a space created by white Euro-American males, ultimately for an implied and intended audience dominated by Euro-Americans (Daniels, 2009). The term trolling, however humorous or normal to the status quo, quickly becomes a key form of cultural capital for other white American’s.
Tondeur, Sinnaeve, Houtte, & Braak (2011), examined the connection between internet communication technologies (ICT) research, research on the sociological inequities of the internet (e.g. the Digital Divide), and Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital. Tondeur et. al. sought to utilize cultural capital as a mechanism to determine whether computer access could be “attributed to computer ownership,” (p. 151). Much prior research on the Digital Divide and ICT explores physical access to a computer as a sufficient predictor of one’s ability to be able to use the technology effectively (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2015; Paino & Renzulli, 2013; Sparks, 2013; Tondeur, et. al., 2011). However, many internet scholars and sociologists disagree on this concept (Halford & Savage, 2010; Savage, 2013), and argue that the social inequities of the internet are much more complex than current research on the digital divide suggests (Savage, 2013; Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2015; Tondeur, et. al., 2011), looking to incorporate theories and research with a critical and intersectional view of technology (Tynes, Schuschke, & Noble, 2016). Examples of this include work by Jessie Daniels researching W. E. B. Du Bois’s work on black and white culture, as well as André Brock’s work on Critical Technological Discourse Theory, to name two. Both authors also have done research on racial formation theory (Feagin & Elias, 2013).
In context of the OSU Speak-Out Event
An event known as the “Speak Out” occurred in the fall of 2015 at Oregon State University (OSU), the event, designed by student leaders, was for students of color who were facing issues of injustice at OSU. The event was attended by OSU President Ed Ray, and other leaders in higher education and student affairs, and was hosted in Gill Coliseum. The event was live-streamed for those who could not attend in person and a chat room was also created that let both OSU affiliated and anonymous users interact while watching the event. Just as the event started, the link to the chat room was anonymously posted on the website 4chan.com, and immediately the chat room was saturated with digital hate speech (i.e. internet trolling) from anonymous internet users. An investigation conducted by the university determined that many of the sources were not from this country and likely not an accurate and authentic representation of the OSU community. When hosting this live event online, the internet chat room became another source to build community and make meaning of the conversations that unfolded at the Speak Out. When students were exposed to the dual nature of this online and offline communication medium during a seemingly “offline” event, they were also exposed to non-authentic, anonymous participants, that had no known connection to the OSU community.
So, what does this mean in the context of race and ethnic relations in the USA? The internet originally promised a chance to break free from conversations of skin color, race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation (Brock, 2011; Brock 2012; Shepherd, Harvey, Jordan, Srauy, & Miltner, 2015). — but we are often reminded of the horrors that the internet can bring. Just weeks before completing this essay, the news covered an incident where a white supremacist alt-right news leader incited internet trolls to harass, and make death threats, only later claiming free speech. This ability for racism and hate speech to become sheltered under free speech is a byproduct of systemic racism living in Americas systems, structures, and communities. Systemic racism often goes unnoticed by those contributing to it, and it is not as easy spot as blatant racism. Through the media, popular culture, and cultural representations of racial stereotypes, Americans are reminded time and time again of the correct way to perceive a person — often only using a quick look at one’s physical appearance, social and cultural capital to make a judgment, casting prejudice.
Conclusion and Future Research
In the context of the OSU Speak Out, and in terms of this sociology course covering race and ethnic relations in the United States, I’ve found myself looking through a new lens, examining the systems and structures that we spend so much of our daily lives communicating in. I’m not just noticing inequality, I’m noticing racism. Racism to me, is more violent, more personal — it reminds me my family, four generations ago – some of my African American ancestors were slaves in America. To see what happened to the OSU Speak Out’s online chatroom is a very serious problem for student affairs professionals. To think that someone knowingly posted on the same 4chan messaging board used by major white supremacist and alt-right groups known as /Pol/ Politically Incorrect (boards.4chan.org/pol/) which called trolls to an event at my Alma Mater, current place of employment, and graduate school, Oregon State University, is very scary, troubling, and sad reality for me. The OSU Speak Out was bombarded by white supremacy, racism, and otherwise hostile acts toward a group of students who were looking to make progress in a long standing American narrative, getting people to see what people of color feel, think, and go through I this country. While not all participants of the Speak Out felt the same way, there is much to be understood, to be shared on social media, and to be learned about people of different ethnicities, especially between those of color and those who are considered white.
Future directions as indicated by Phillips (2015), and Tynes & Noble (2016), among others, indicate the continued need for a critical exploration of the internet as an infrastructure. The internet is connected to society in ways that allow for systems of inequality, racism, prejudice, and gatekeeping through forms cultural capital and social capital to prevail, even to thrive. A critical exploration of the internet will allow for a new definition of what it means to co-exist in an imagined community. New scholarship in digital literacy and citizenship needs to be explored that takes an intersectional approach to the multiple ways that the internet impacts society, spanning physical and systemic boundaries, institutions, and communities (Senft & Noble, 2015; Wolske, Williams, Noble, Johnson & Duple, 2010). This course in race and ethnic relations allowed me to further my understanding of the internet and society, looking at our interactions in the online world with a critical lens, being sure to remember where many of the American social structures including the internet come from, continuing the resistance against oppression, and cultural dominance performed in American popular culture today.
Brock, Andre. (2012). From the blackhand side: Twitter as a cultural conversation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(4), 529-549.
Brock, A. (2011). Beyond the pale: The Blackbird web browser’s critical reception. New Media & Society, 13(7), 1085–1103. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444810397031
Daniels, J. (2009). Cyber racism white supremacy online and the new attack on civil rights (Perspectives on a Multiracial America). Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield
Daniels, J. (2013). Race and racism in Internet Studies: A review and critique. New Media & Society, 15(5), 695–719. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444812462849
Feagin, J., & Elias, S. (2013). Rethinking racial formation theory: a systemic racism critique. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(6), 931–960. 10.1080/01419870.2012.669839
Halford, S., & Savage, M. (2010). Conceptualizing digital social inequality. Information, communication & society. 13/7, pp. 937-955
Marger, Martin (2015) Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company
Nissenbaum, A., & Shifman, L. (2015). Internet memes as contested cultural capital: The case of 4chan’s /b/ board. New Media & Society, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815609313
Phillips, Whitney. This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. The MIT Press
Rajagopalan, R. M., Nelson, A., and Fujimora, J. H. (2016) Race and Science in the Twenty First Century. in (Ed.) Felt, U. The handbook of science and technology studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. pp. 350-378
Senft, T., & Noble, S. U. (2014). Race and Social Media. In (Eds.) Hunsinger, J. & Senft, T. (2014). The social media handbook. New York: Routledge
Shepherd, T., Harvey, A., Jordan, T., Srauy, S., & Miltner, K. (2015). Histories of Hating. Social Media + Society, 1(2), 2056305115603997
Tondeur, J., Sinnaeve, I., Houtte, M. van, & Braak, J. van. (2011). ICT as cultural capital: The relationship between socioeconomic status and the computer-use profile of young people. New Media & Society, 13(1), 151–168. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444810369245
Tynes, B., Schuschke, J., & Noble S. U. Digital intersectionality theory and the #blacklivesmatter movement. (2016). In Safiya Umoja Noble & Brendesha M. Tynes (Ed.) The intersectional internet: Race, sex, class, and culture online. New York, NY: Peter Lang. 23 - 40
Wolske, M., Williams, N. S., Noble, S., Johnson, E. O., & Duple, R. Y. (2010). Effective ICT use for Social Inclusion. Retrieved from https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/14952
 This context appeared on a blog post that I wrote in Spring 2015: https://medium.com/jamesathomasiv/fluid-borders-and-campus-ecology-f33e499632c8
 see https://dailystormer.red/a-normies-guide-to-the-alt-right/ for more information about the history of /Pol/ Politically Incorrect (boards.4chan.org/pol/)