Social media: more harm than good?

Despite my best efforts, I can’t avoid the Classics discourse. Several reactions to the recent email debacle gave me pause last night. It made me think: it’s time for some reflection, and some hard truths. It’s time for us to wake up, and act.

A few weeks ago, following a talk at the AIA-SCS annual meeting wherein an instructor talked about asking their students to justify slavery, I invited everyone to consider whether they were doing harm in their classrooms. Today, I want us to go further than that.

Ask yourselves:

Are you doing harm to your peers? Your colleagues?

If you answered no, I want you to think again. Harder this time. Chances are you might be doing harm and haven’t realized it yet.

We might think that what we post on social media is part of “fighting the good fight” against those who spew racist nonsense about Classical Studies.

We drag our racist interlocutors in order to invalidate their claims and show that we don’t accept them as “one of us.” We make them look foolish by deconstructing their writing, zeroing in on particular turns of phrase, and meme-ifying them.

We do it in defense of a more inclusive Classics (or so we think).

Social media can be an activist space and I’ve seen it done well. But what we’re doing on Classics Twitter – namely, making light of racist behavior and giving space to racists in our discipline – just ain’t it (I say “we” here because I’m sure I’ve been complicit at one time or another, and am willing to change how I react in the future).

I get it. Social media lends itself to a sense of safety, somehow both removed from and deeply entangled with the harsh realities of racist emails or bad takes published in articles across the internet. Social media is both an escape and a prison.

It’s easy to make light of a situation on social media, because, in some cases, the people who share their bad, racist takes can’t access what we’re saying. We pile on because we don’t want to feel left out, or worse, to seem like we’re in support of the racists in our discipline by choosing not to engage.

But sharing your opinion, or posting a meme, or retweeting a thread isn’t activism in itself. Even tacking on a “donate to the Sportula!” at the end of our threads isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong – you absolutely should be donating to mutual aid funds, and there are many out there dedicated to helping members of our community in need. 

But don’t let donating to these funds be the only thing you do when another person with racist ideas about Classics emerges. 

Don’t let your mind believe that that’s the only good work you can or should be doing, especially when it comes to supporting and advocating for BIPOC in your immediate networks. 

Often BIPOC in our immediate communities get pushed to the side, ignored, and forgotten about when Classicists are racist on main. You can’t defend Classics without defending the most precarious groups within Classics, too.

So, donate to the Sportula and actively disrupt racism whenever and wherever it occurs. Inaction – and, yes, posting on Twitter without doing anything meaningful offline counts as inaction – is harmful.

When the people who could be intervening and actively disrupting racism don’t step up to the plate, it pushes the burden of dealing with such incidents onto other, usually more precarious individuals (women, BIPOC, untenured faculty, graduate and undergraduate students).

I am often inspired by other BIPOC leading the charge for changing the discipline, but am also aware that in many cases the impetus for this comes from a lack of initiative from their white colleagues. 

It shouldn’t take BIPOC calling attention to the harmful behavior of a majority of our Classics (Twitter) community to get us to actually do something about racism in our field.

You might be a white person reading this and say, “But I’ve been calling for action already!”

Calls from white folks for more active disruption of racism often neglect to recognize the risk involved in sticking your neck out and calling out/attention to racism or challenging racists head on.

It’s easy to chastise people on social media for their inactivity, but before you do that, actually consider what it would mean for different groups to do that labor. 

What would it mean for BIPOC to respond to a racist email, or confront a professor who’s been employing racist pedagogical approaches?

What would it mean for you to do that? 

Are the risks the same for you and for your BIPOC colleagues? 

Spoiler: the answer is no. A similar issue arises when we think about students versus faculty members. It’s one thing for a faculty member to call out the racist actions of another faculty member, but it may be a totally different one for a student to raise the issue, because there is a lot more at risk for them – a potential ally, recommendation, or advisor. Trust me, I have felt this moral conflict firsthand, but luckily I’ve had some really wonderful allies who had my back and still got shit done.

Be careful who you point the finger at when it comes to accusing people of not doing enough. Everyone should be actively involved in disrupting racism in our discipline, but not everyone can do so safely.

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