A look at derailing: how online conversations about racism are interrupted

Last week, I wrote about the difficulties of discussing social justice issues, such as racism, on online platforms.

Continuing from that, I’d like to explore a silencing tactic which has often been used online to deny or dismiss issues of injustice: derailing.

To derail someone in an online conversation is to make a statement that shifts the focus of the conversation away from the original topic.

Derailment is a problem because it makes marginalised people have to put disclaimers on everything they say. When a person talks about being discriminated against, derailing them detracts from the point they are trying to make, because they then have to put qualifiers before their point is heard.

For instance, if a woman complains about recieving street harrassment from men, someone may defensively respond “But not all men do it!”.

Image sourced here.

Basically, derailment wastes time because it distracts everyone from the issue that has been put forward.

A few weeks ago, Lesego Moshikaro wrote a post on questioning white privilege and institutional racism at Rhodes University and in the following conversations about racism on the Rhodes SRC Facebook group, there were several examples of derailment. These are two kinds of the responses:

1) All lives matter

“I feel like #ALLlivesMatter. There are so many issues of discrimination here at Rhodes, despite it being one of the most accepting universities in South Africa. #ALLlivesMatter and ALLdiscriminationShouldBeStopped”

In conversations about social problems like racism and sexism, which affect specific groups disproportionately, saying things like “all lives matter” is derailment because it dismisses a social injustice.

In using the phrase #BlackLivesMatter as Moshikaro did, the intention was to highlight that the problem of institutional racism disproportionately affects black people.

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag originated in the United States. It was started in 2014 by Alicia Garza in response to the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin and as a response to anti-black racism. She writes,

#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life [as a white person] isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation…When Black people get free, everybody gets free.”

Source: ChainSawsuit.com

2) Let’s talk about this instead/This other topic is more important

“It’s very convenient to talk about white supremacy. Don’t forget Black South Africans killing foreign nationals.”

At the time this comment was made, the recent spate of xenophobic attacks had not started. Drawing another issue of injustice in such conversations in this way is a derailment tactic.

The problem here is not that the other social injustice issue doesn’t matter. It’s more that this kind of derailment hinders important conversations about injustice by fragmenting them.

Of course, every person is privileged and oppressed in different ways. For this reason, it is important to look at the way racism and gender discrimination (for instance) intersect in people’s lives.

However, it is possible to have such conversations without derailing others when we discuss social justice issues on the internet.

Image by Jim Chuchu

Over the Rainbow

Despite efforts by some to derail the #RhodesSoWhite conversation, the author of the post, Lesego Moshikaro received some constructive responses to it, both privately and publically.

Moshikaro says, “I got a lot of dissatisfied and hurt white students who were quite offended by my post. Some were quite open to engaging and trying to understand where I was coming from with regards to the post. Eventually, we came to a common ground, which was good. A lot of eyes were opened, mine included.”

“Something beautiful also came out of this – I got mostly white students asking what can be done, what they should do, how to get involved etc. That’s a start. That’s a good start.”, she added.

Have you been silenced or derailed when bringing up injustice? Tell me about it in the comments

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#RhodesSoWhite & the pitfalls of discussing racism online

Trigger warning: discussion of racism (institutional and otherwise)

Following the emergence of the Rhodes Must Fall protests at the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University students began to discuss the issue of institutional racism in their own context.

At first, the developments online did not attract much attention and were focused mainly on what was happening at UCT. That is until, Rhodes graduate Lesego Moshikaro posted this message on the Rhodes SRC Facebook page:leseg

Her post attracted over 600 comments by Rhodes students, led to the creation of the #RhodesSoWhite hashtag, and resulted in heated debate (both offline and online). Much of the discussion on Lesego’s post illustrated some of the challenges of discussing about social justice issues online.

Meaningful engagement

The first challenge of engaging around social justice issues on the internet is that online spaces are usually unfiltered and unmonitored. It can be very difficult to establish what impact the dialogue will have offline or IRL (in real life).

Although the discussion can be widely visible, as was the case with Lesego’s post, it’s hard to tell whether people are meaningfully participating and learning from the discussion or if they just there because they have FOMO.

Moderation & making online spaces safe

Another challenge related to making social movements visible online is that often, online platforms are not safe spaces for marginalised people.

As Sian Ferguson of EverydayFeminism.com writes,

In order to keep a space safe, we need to have rules. Safe spaces don’t tolerate certain (oppressive) views, and they value safety over debate. There are things that are not up for debate and discussion.

Making issues like institutional racism visible on an online platform is risky for marginalised groups because they could be exposed to hate speech or triggered.

According to its description, the Rhodes SRC Facebook group “encourage(s) debate, but in line with the values of equality, non-racialism, non-sexism or any form of discrimination.”

In order for online platforms such as this, to become safe spaces for marginalised groups, some form of moderation is needed. Currently, the only way in which posts are ‘moderated’ on the Rhodes SRC Facebook group is if they are reported to and removed by Facebook, or deleted by those who post them.

While moderation would be feasible for a platform such as a Facebook group, it is more difficult to make platforms such as Twitter and comment sections of websites safe spaces.

Erasure and silencing 

A third challenge of engaging in online dialogue about racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression is that such dialogues are often subjected to silencing.

In the online context, silencing is when people who bring up a social justice issue have their grievances dismissed or are discouraged from speaking up by (usually privileged) others. Silencing is a big problem because it de-legitimises the legitimate concerns of marginalised groups.

 Some examples of silencing on Lesego’s FB post are as follows (I’ve included my between-the-lines translations of them in italics):

“We all need to stop playing the victim.”People who are bringing up institutional racism at Rhodes are playing the victim. 

“You haven’t suffered [from apartheid] personally.”Claims that  (black) students are still negatively affected by the impacts of apartheid at present are not legitimate, because apartheid ‘ended’ in ’94.

”Maybe you can join my soup kitchen in Joza (township) & I can show you what its like to HELP the community.”* – Institutional racism is not the biggest problem in society. Our efforts to better society should focus on those who are ‘really’ oppressed. 

Another variant of silencing was something like, “If racism really exists at Rhodes University, why are people only speaking up now?” This type of comment minimizes the grievances of students who challenge institutional racism, making it seem like they’re just ‘jumping on the bandwagon’.

Reading all these comments had me like…

As we can see from all these examples, the types of resistance that social movements meet in real life don’t disappear when the movement is taken to the digital streets.

In my next blog post, I’ll be looking closer at the silencing tactics used when social movements go digital. In the mean-time,  have you experienced any of the above problems when talking about social justice in online platforms? Did you learn something new from online engagements about racism that have taken place in the past few weeks?

Let me know in the comments 🙂

*edited for brevity