The Complications of Race and Self-Segregation Online

Both Dara Byrne and danah boyd examine the complexities of racial self-segregation on the Internet, and challenge the notion that “deterritorialized”/”borderless” interactions (anticipated by scholars) would arise from the Internet.  Instead, Byrne (and Boyd) point out how in fact “signs of territory, and the accompanying rhetorics of ‘nation building,’ are more visible than ever” (Byrne 21).

In Learning Race and Ethnicity, Dara Byrne explores the rise of online forums dedicated to particular groups of “racial citizens”, particularly relating to their effects on minority youths. Byrne focuses her case study on Community Connect, Inc. (CCI) and it’s three major sites: AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and MiGente.  These sites, in which race and ethnicity are the principal features around which public life is organized, serve to affirm that “the dissolution of racial identification in cyberspace is neither possible nor desirable” (Byrne 15). Rather, in citing these dedicated racial sites as “informal citizenship schools”, Byrne highlights how these are “valuable resources for understanding the ways in which ethnic communities construct, stabilize, modify, and challenge individual and community senses of identity over a relatively long period of time” (Byrne 17).  In this space in which minority youths are both consumers and producers of social identity and knowledge, it is critical to recognize how these spaces serve as an opportunity for those typically unheard to contribute and collectively reflect/connect on the basis of shared experience.  However, Byrne points out that despite clear engagement among youths in conversations about racial and ethnic issues, a “why bother” rhetoric prohibits meaningful action offline. Byrne highlights how young participants must see “that there is a fundamental relationship between collective voice and social change” (Byrne 32). It is crucial to develop tools for helping young people engage with these informal learning spaces more critically.

Byrne and boyd both highlight that one of the great hopes for the Internet was that it would “serve as the great equalizer”. However, as boyd points out, “the color-blind and disembodied social world that the Internet was supposed to make possible has not materialized” (boyd 23). Rather, in boyd’s chapter Inequality, she highlights the rampant racism and hate speech within online communities, specifically discussing the 2009 BET Awards and the subsequent creation of, and the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games as an African American girl, and the racist rant by Alexandra Wallace of UCLA against Asian and Asian American students on YouTube. What’s critically important in examining these instances, however, is recognizing the underlying operations behind these viral occurrences; as boyd crucially highlights, “on the one hand, calling attention to these messages shames those who contributed to them. On the other, it incites a new type of hate, which continues to reinforce structural divides” (162). To complicate this further, there are two outcomes of such online racism becoming viral. First, as boyd highlight above, structural divides become magnified, and various groups can react violently to such occurrences (as were the death threats received by Alexandra Wallace after her video became viral). Second, although antiracists who become outraged might call attention to such issues by forwarding the hate speech, it is imperative to reflect upon the subsequent increase of visibility of such racial hostility, and the possible consequence of perpetuating/continuing racist dialogue.

Additionally, boyd argues that the racial dynamics and segregation that often gets ignored offline is not only perpetuated but magnified online; teens bring their experiences with them online (including their prejudices), and social media pages often reflect the damaging nature of online racial segregation (boyd 165).

Self Segregation

Taking the ideas of boyd and Byrne together complicates the idea of racial self-segregation; on the one hand, boyd illustrates “racial preference” on social media as a reflection of racist undertones within schools, and notes how it contributes to racial inequality; concurrently, boyd and Byrne highlight the critical outlet (as a source of belonging and enhanced identity development) that self segregation on the Internet provides minority youths. Recognizing the complexity of such an issue is essential. As boyd states, “the reasons behind the practice of homophily and the resultant social divisions are complex, rooted in a history of inequality, bigotry, oppression, and structural constraints in American life”, while at the same time  “teens’ choice to connect with people like them isn’t necessarily born out of their personal racist beliefs. In many cases, teens reinforce homophily in order to cope with the racist society in which they live” (boyd 166). In this manner, it must be noted that homophily is not simply the result of result of hatred or prejudice.

Despite the previous hope by scholars for a color-blind, post-racial digital space, both boyd and Byrne acknowledge and complicate the issues of self-segregation and its effects on perpetuated racism and simultaneous community building.


Discussion Questions

  1. “Today’s youth live in a world with real and pervasive social divisions. Those dynamics are reproduced online and have significant implications for how teens make sense of public life” (boyd 175). Considering this quote, along with the points made by both Byrne and boyd, do you believe the increased use of technology and social media seem more beneficial or detrimental to youths?
  2. “…Participation by racial others – particularly whites – is often viewed as an effort to thwart ‘nation’ (and movement) building, identity formation, belonging, and ownership” (Byrne 15).  Although Byrne highlights that racial outsiders (particularly whites) are unwelcome in such dedicated forums, do you think it is possible for “racial outsiders” to productively participate in such forums? What would be the proper balance between the necessity for an outlet (self-segregation that allows for mutual understanding/shared experience) and the participation of racial outsiders to become more critically aware/informed?
  3. “In a world where information is easily available, strong personal networks and access to helpful people often matter more than access to the information itself” (boyd 172). Given the apparent inequality of such resources in our society, are their ways in which the Internet can serve as an equalizer? Or, is such an idea impossible given offline realities?


Works Cited

“Asians in the Library (UCLA’s Alexandra Wallace)” YouTube, 15 March 2011. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

boyd, danah. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press. (selections)

Byrne, Dara N. 2008. “The future of (the) race: identity and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres.” In Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Anna Everett, ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 15-38.

Holmes, Anna. “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games”. The New Yorker, 30 March 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

“OMG! Black People!” WordPress, 2009. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

“Self Segregation Screenshot.” 2014. JPG file.


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