By Zeloszelos Marchandt
Dependable safe spaces are a requirement for people of color (PoC), when mundane tasks like working, attending a rehearsal or going for a walk can mean encountering a host of racist, classist and gender hate constructs that, well-intentioned or not, continually compromise mental health. Having space to be upset has gone from purely face to face organizing to a hybrid of real-time assembling and digital community building.
Western ideas for drafting and maintaining equity have historically depended on messaging like posters, pins, marches and banners as symbolic actions of unity and community. Today they take the form of online memes, screenshots and swiftly rebranded information from mainstream media. Civil Rights attorney Howard Moore Jr., who promoted anti-discrimination laws like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, spoke in Portland last January about the history of the civil rights community and its social justice luminaries today as they encounter digital media.
“Platforms like Facebook have been tools to spread information quickly, but have yet to prove themselves as a way to unify or transmit and protect information,” said Moore. “It remains to be seen how social media will meet these challenges.”
“In all their diversity, people of color believe in many different ways to achieve freedoms and process pains. The unjust and exploitative system we live in can be perpetuated inside an online group by its own members.”
There is a difference in policies between Facebook and other online forums. Facebook is calibrated to increase reach quickly through word of mouth and analytics built into the platform. Digital forums outside of Facebook do not have the same mechanics. They often act purely as message boards, with threads stemming from an original topic. Another difference is how they encourage moderation.
A moderator is usually present in a group or forum, directing conversations, and interrupting them when they become off topic (or toxic). They also post thought-provoking content. An administrator has all the editing power—focusing on adding or removing moderators and members, managing the branded look, and curating the experience of the group. This can entail stopping comments, blocking people, pinning or advancing posts, and deleting or archiving groups. All rudimentary tasks that become complex when intersecting with sentiments around race, class and gender.
After historical groups like Harlem’s Niggerati, the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and others who sought to liberate and create safe living environments for their communities were undermined from the inside; the advent of the internet has seemed like a convenient answer to the question of physical and mental safety. But the same problems—of maintaining a unity of thought, personhood and respect—persist for people of color looking for peace and inspiration, as they did for their forebears. In all their diversity, people of color believe in many different ways to achieve freedoms and process pains. The unjust and exploitative system we live in can be perpetuated inside an online group by its own members.
“Without solid guidelines on emotional labor, a group can unintentionally lose membership from the marginalized people of color that need them the most.”
Defining safe spaces that discourage tone policing, gaslighting commentary, and erosion of marginalized experience is easier said than done. It is the age-old problem of rhetoric and lip service grating against the realities of integration. Each marginalized group has its own myriad of unique experiences inside their margins. It can be incredibly difficult to facilitate discussions on oppression while also being an online community manager.
“The problem is the lurkers…” Said one anonymous moderator of a PoC-led online Facebook group. “It’s become worse than the white gaze. There are so many people now in the group that it’s impossible to make sure everyone is legit and not into outing other PoCs.”
Most groups begin as a labor of love and finish that way too, with leadership changing hands several times. Still, without solid guidelines on emotional labor, a group can unintentionally lose membership from the marginalized people of color that need them the most. Many feel that it’s just not safe.
“The nonbinary and fluid is completely unrepresented in a lot of PoC forums,” said an anonymous member of a popular Portland, Oregon-founded Facebook group. “ I left.”
The future is uncertain when it comes to how people of color will support each other as they decolonize and unify online. The work of uncovering the thoughts and ideas of our contemporary luminaries is slightly easier than it was in decades past. There are certain proofs that this is a work in process.