In Living Color: Commenting About Race


This is a post everyone probably needs to read.

It’s a post about race. Or rather, it’s a post about posts about race – specifically, the comments that accompany them.

We have a set of rules regarding commenting on Jezebel. We have posted them repeatedly, and will continue to do so. They are also available, at any time, via the “About” section at the bottom of our pages. They are fairly straightforward: No attacks, no yelling, no threadjacking. But, as many readers have pointed out, they have proven to be inadequate guidelines with regards to the complicated conversations surrounding certain issues, especially those concerning race, ethnicity, and cultural sensitivity.

There’s a lot I can say about this, but won’t, for reasons of clarity and space. I want to be straightforward, not academic. Furthermore, my time reading the comments and comment moderation policies on blogs that are explicitly focused on issues of race and ethnicity has proven that there is no easy or “right” way to deal with these discussions, especially on a mainstream site like Jezebel. And it can get frustrating, both for the readers, and the editors.

We all need to do better.

But how? Taking what I’ve observed on this blog and others – and direct suggestions from readers themselves – I’ve come up with some guidelines.

1. Remember that it’s not about you personally. Discussions of race often revolve around systems that have developed throughout history – not what one individual has chosen to do or experienced. A post on, say, black Barbies and the fact that certain populations have not seen/are not seeing their realities represented in popular culture is not the place to complain or point out that you were sad as a child because there were no red-headed Barbies. Wait for a post on red-headed Barbies.

2. Don’t get defensive. Accept the reality of others’ experiences and anger with grace and humility and don’t compare or weigh those experiences, struggles and disappointments to your own. To paraphrase commenter Sister Toldja: “Please just be here when it hurts. Try to accept the discomfort of acknowledging when you are part of a privileged majority with the understanding that some women of color are not pretending that your struggles don’t exist at all.”

3. Don’t shift discussions of race to your own concerns or perceptions of victimization or guilt. (See #1 above.) It’s a sure way to demonstrate your unseriousness, and possible grounds for disemvoweling or banning.

4. Don’t whine. If you don’t want to see posts dealing with issues of race, 1) don’t read them or 2) find another blog. Whiners will be banned immediately, and without warning.

5. Own your anger and disappointment without attacking others in the community. Yes, there is a place for passion, especially in discussions of race. There is no place, however, for nastiness, inflamed rhetoric, condescension, excessive sarcasm or ad hominem attacks…even in response to others’ ignorance, anger and offensiveness, whether perceived or overt. Tone does matter. (See our commenting rules here.) If you’re getting heated up or feeling angry, acknowledge this calmly and explain why. Assuming that everyone is, or should be, highly educated and fluent in the discourse surrounding racial issues is a sure recipe for disappointment and shows willful dismissal of reality. Keep in mind that we have readers of all ages, backgrounds, and education levels. Which brings me to:

6. Accept that certain conversations are not meant for everyone. Personal experience goes a long way when constructing and fleshing out narratives about any difficult, painful and complicated issue. This is especially true with regards to race. This site is made up of a majority-white readership, which means that the voices of women of color can easily be drowned out and dismissed, especially on threads dealing with race. Give those commenters with personal experience their due by honoring, respecting and highlighting their contributions. In fact, this is a good rule of thumb on any post.

7. Assuming that you are part of the problem can help you become part of the solution. To paraphrase commenter SwirlGirl: “We should recognize the hundreds of minor (and major!) assumptions that we make every day and challenge the underlying biases they may be predicated on.” Shorter: We all have work to do.

8. Educate yourself. (See 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 above). It’s okay not to understand certain things. But readers should approach the comment threads on posts about complicated issues – whether about race, gender politics, body image, etc. – as introductions, and take it upon themselves to seek out resources if they want more information. It is not the job of other commenters to provide answers for you. However, there is nothing wrong with asking for – and providing – help and assistance in clarifying ideas, as long as these requests are made in good faith and do not involve threadjacking, dismissal, arrogance, or lecturing.

9. Constantly question your own ignorance and naivete before you comment. I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb both on and offline.

10. Read the post – and the source material(s) – carefully and directly cite/quote passages you are responding to. This will help you avoid making generalizations about what the writers – and other commenters – are saying.

Readers are encouraged to elaborate on and discuss the above suggestions in the comments below.

A note on moderation: We try to moderate all threads, especially “controversial” ones. But moderation is a two way street. Sometimes, our moderators and editors are busy doing other things and are not aware of inflammatory rhetoric or bad behavior until long after it has been posted and then responded to. Sometimes a moderator or editor may not recognize that a comment or comment thread is questionable because she is skimming threads quickly or because she doesn’t immediately recognize that it is problematic. Curating the comments and maintaining a thriving, happy community is a group effort. We cannot be everywhere and anywhere at all times. We do need help.

Further resources:

Why Is It So Important To Have Productive Conversations On Race? [Racialicious]
Racism 101 [Resist Racism]
White Privilege [PDF]
How to Suppress Discussions Of Racism [Coffee and Ink]

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