The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Asian American woman’s tweets ignite a debate: Is it okay to make fun of white people online?

(Richard Drew/AP)

The old tweets bubbled up from the depths of the Internet, surfaced by an apparently anonymous user on Twitter.

In them, Sarah Jeong, a technology writer recently hired by the New York Times for a prestigious post on its editorial board, spoke sarcastically about white people.

“Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men,” she wrote in one.

“White people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants,” she wrote in another.

“#CancelWhitePeople,” another said.

Without evidence that they had any bearing on Jeong’s extensive body of work, which includes a book she wrote about online harassment, these statements could have perhaps been unceremoniously dismissed as insignificant. But after conservative media seized on the story Thursday, they ignited a firestorm of debate.

Jeong is the latest in a long line of people to have their old tweets surfaced for scrutiny in connection with a high-profile career assignment. She certainly won’t be the last. In recent weeks, at least four baseball players have been excoriated for old tweets. The writer the Times had tried to hire before Jeong to bulk up its technology writing, Quinn Norton, was let go before she even started after an uproar over remarks she made previously on Twitter.

But in a country in the midst of a painful debate about white supremacy and privilege, Jeong’s episode has exposed a deeper rift between some conservatives — whose political ideology has been marked by the rise of a president who has trafficked in racially charged rhetoric and policies — and the left, pointing to a fundamental disagreement about the nature of race and power in the United States.

At right-leaning outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Caller, the Gateway Pundit, Breitbart and Infowars, Jeong’s tweets were skewered as “racist,” “offensive” and “anti-white.”

“NYTimes’ Newest Hire Sent Tons of Anti-White Racist Tweets,” the Daily Caller chimed in.

“Jeong was not hired despite her racist tweets, she was hired because of them,” wrote the right-wing site Infowars, known for its vigorous promotion of conspiracy theories.

To some conservatives, her hiring, and the subsequent defense issued by the Times, was an example of how liberals get away with their own brand of racism — against white people.

“Sarah Jeong not being fired by the New York Times for her racist and hateful tweets is example 93,687,887,482 of liberal hypocrisy,” conservative commentator and occasional conspiracy theorist Mark Dice wrote on Twitter.

But others were quick to say that the statements Jeong made could be skewed as racist only if the culture, history and current sociopolitical context of the United States were ignored.

“Part of the reason it was so easy for the outrage to be manufactured in the first place was it was completely decontextualized and ahistorified,” said Nolan L. Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who will publish a book in the fall about racial attitudes held by white college students. “Then it was easy to drum up anger and say it looks like she hates white people. That only makes sense if you are willfully ignorant of 400 to 500 years’ history and contemporary social context and also the context from which the tweets were sent.”

It is likely true, as many have pointed out, that if any minority group were substituted in the place of white people into Jeong’s statements, she would not have kept her job. Some edited Jeong’s tweets to hammer home that idea, replacing the words “white people” in her tweets with “black people” and “Jewish people.”

But Cabrera said the idea was “a complete false equivalence,” noting that whiteness isn’t a cultural identity the way being black, Japanese American or Jewish is. Cabrera listed off examples of government policies that targeted various racial groups, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Operation Wetback, calling racism a “systemic reality” that necessarily favors white people.

“You hear that all the time: Substitute white and put in minority group x,” Cabrera said. “The term ‘racism’ is not the equivalence of prejudice or bigotry. It’s an analysis of social inequality along the color lines and an analysis of power dynamics and social oppression. None of which has ever been in the hands of people of color or communities of color: There’s never been the social structure to be able to oppress white people.”

Still, some conservatives disagreed with that framing, acknowledging that though the tweets were not comparable to white-supremacist ideologies, they still should be considered racism.

“The threat of anti-white racism (except in rare cases) isn’t violence. It’s not systematic oppression. There’s no realistic scenario where ‘the tables are turned’ and black Americans visit on white Americans a reverse version of the worst aspects of American history,” David French wrote in the National Review. “The problem with anti-white racism is that it runs directly counter to efforts to unify in spite of that history. It runs counter to efforts to elevate American culture. And, yes, it can and does create individual injustice in those instances where anti-white racism manifests itself in more than just tweets and academic journals.”

There’s no good reason to keep old tweets online. Here’s how to delete them.

Jeong’s episode has also raised complicated questions about the stubborn nature of harassment that women of color face online. In a statement she posted to Twitter on Thursday, Jeong said she regretted the tweets and that they had been made as a satirical response to people who had harassed her because of her race and gender online. She included an image of the racial slurs directed at her and said she had used language that “mimicked” that of her harassers.

This type of harassment, that combines racism and sexism, is something only women of color experience online, according to Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women.

Social media have created the opportunity for minority communities around the world to connect, but they have also left these groups vulnerable to vicious attacks by anonymous trolls.

“There’s a point where you ask yourself: Should you just not say anything, or should you speak up about it?” Mitchell said.

The ploys by these anonymous Twitter users vary, Mitchell said, but they often involve threatening children the women may or may not have.

“I hope your kid doesn’t become a hashtag” is a common tweet Mitchell sees.

Sonia Gupta, a software engineer in Colorado with a large Twitter following, experienced this type of harassment this week after sharing an article about “how dangerous and toxic white women are to women of color.” One tweet stuck out in particular because of a threatening statement it included about lynching.

“It’s terrifying to these people who are enraged that we have an equal voice on this platform,” Gupta said.

This kind of harassment knows few limits. A white male writer, Sam Thielman, showcased the racist responses he received after he defended Jeong, from people who thought he was Jewish because of his last name. He later said he is of German descent.

Episodes like Jeong’s are now a regular part of the culture online where petty outrages, stoked by both legitimate emotions and political motivations, can quickly bloom into full controversies, their way smoothed by Internet algorithms. Hastily made statements, mistaken and juvenile sentiments, and moments of idiocy now live forever online.

The cycle is rapid and routine: The tweets surface, drawing strong reactions, which give them prominence. News organizations take notice and provide coverage accordingly. Sometimes people lose their jobs, as in the case of director James Gunn, whom Disney fired recently from his high-profile gig at the helm of the Guardians of the Galaxy films after old tweets he made joking about pedophilia circulated.

Many said both Gunn’s and Jeong’s experiences were reminiscent of #Gamergate, when men targeted women in the video-game industry online, and online campaigns waged against journalists by people such as right-wing agitator and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich.

But some organizations are wising up. In addition to the Times, Jeong’s current employer, the technology site the Verge, issued a vigorous defense of her.

“Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda,” the site’s editors said in a statement. “They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation. So we’re not going to fall for these disingenuous tactics. And it’s time other newsrooms learn to spot these hateful campaigns for what they are: attempts to discredit and undo the vital work of journalists who report on the most toxic communities on the Internet.”

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