Every few weeks, a racist ranter intersects with a horrified smartphone owner and an ill-fated internet star is born. The latest viral racist is a white Columbia student spewing about the superiority of his race to an unwilling audience of students and dining hall staff—more than a few of whom were people of color. It’s a familiar sort of college campus nightmare: The rant began after the student, who has been identified by the Columbia Daily Spectator as sophomore Julian von Abele, grabbed a passing female student and she pulled away; he followed her and her friends into a dining hall, where he jumped up and down screaming things like “We’re white men. We did everything.”
The video showcases just the kind of furious entitlement and everyday racism progressives on the internet have been calling out all year: This student is just the college campus version of the people screaming at Spanish speakers in restaurants and grocery stores , or the many, many, many people who have called the police on black people doing things like mowing lawns , being in Starbucks , or doing community service . The most famous of these moments have become important enough touchstones for online progressives that they’re now memes, like BBQ Becky (who called the cops on people having a barbecue in a park), Permit Patty (who threatened to call the police on an 8-year-old selling water bottles), and Cornerstore Caroline (who called the police to accuse a 9-year-old child of sexual assault after he accidentally brushed against her).
This is "callout culture": taking something awful and blasting it onto the internet where it can be shared and its wrongdoers shamed. Critics of callout culture contest that it ruins the life of the person being called out, subjecting them to waves of online harassment that may wash into their offline life, solidifying their misguided feelings of persecution. Which is a valid concern, full stop.
This is “callout culture”: taking something awful and blasting it onto the internet where it can be shared.
But the impact of these videos stretches beyond the ranter being shamed or even the people they’re ranting at. Documenting the everyday horrors of racism was a crucial part of the civil rights movement, and is key to the activism of Black Lives Matter and other groups documenting police brutality and other forms of violence against minorities. These videos demonstrate the pervasiveness of that racism’s nonviolent cousin. By circulating examples of people of color’s lived experiences—for a wider audience than has ever been possible—these videos are remaking the image of the American racist. Turning racist rants into joke fodder isn’t idle frivolity (or a spout of nihilist laughter as the world burns): It’s revealing that racism and racists are not only real and everywhere, but also that they aren’t so scary after all. These videos and memes laugh in the face of bigotry, and invite others to join.
Of course, these jokes are at the racist ranters’ expense, and that may be damaging. The internet in general (and the viral video in particular) doesn’t show a life in context; the snippets it chooses are frozen in carbonite forever. That can be a brutal lesson, especially for people like this Columbia student. College students today are living what’s likely to be the most chaotic and ill-considered times of their lives in front of the world, forever. Those other ranters, the concern goes, could also be drunk or mentally unstable or having the worst day of their lives. “We may end up losing an opportunity to rehabilitate somebody because they’ll forever have ‘bigot’ on their forehead,” says Brian Levin, director of CSU San Bernardino's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “It could also be used to further advance tribalism.”
It’s true. These videos certainly aren’t unifying. And activists certainly aren’t looking to add ammunition to the extreme right’s case that liberals are trying to shame white men for having pride in their identity. Nevertheless, while you might expect the alt-right and other white nationalists would to rally around these videos, they don’t, according to Phyllis Gerstenfeld, who studies online hate and criminology at Cal State Stanislaus. These videos show a reality the far-right doesn’t want you to see: “A lot of the other visions we see of racism are these scary, aggressive extremists like skinheads,” Gerstenfeld says. “But that’s not who’s really out there. It takes away the mystique.”
These videos reveal that the average American racist isn’t a terrifying, hulking figure who might knife you in an alley if you’re really unlucky—it’s a middle-aged white woman in a store or a drunk bro at a bar. That sends a crucial message to citizens (and institutions) who are inclined to think that everyday grocery store racism is a thing of the past. And it demonstrates a new way to respond to the everyday racists we encounter: Not only are they not particularly scary, they’re so vehemently incoherent that’s it’s a little bit funny. They’re sort of 2018’s version of Superman vs the KKK , and every memer recording and lampooning these bigots is a digital age Stetson Kennedy.
These videos reveal that the average American racist isn’t a terrifying, hulking figure—it’s a middle-aged white woman in a store or a drunk bro at a bar.
Still, no blooper reel of bigotry will end racism in America on its own. “Documenting the horrible violence against elderly voters in Selma, Alabama helped bring about the Voting Rights Act, but so did Martin Luther King’s speeches putting that violence into context,” says Levin. “If these videos become shock-value entertainment, we’re losing the opportunity to connect them to an ideal.” In other words, it’s introspection—not the knee-jerk laughter—that will bring about change. And encouragingly, that seems to be what were are doing.
A regrettable rant on Columbia’s campus has turned into a discussion about how universities handle issues of race and bigotry, and whether the school’s university’s core curriculum is reinforcing the student’s (wrongheaded, ahistorical) notion that white men “did everything.” Not bad for a viral video.
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