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!”.
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.”
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.
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