Amie Breeze Harper didn’t allow the racist comments she faced on her Internet blog to get in the way of her end goal.
Imagine you’re walking down a dark tunnel and you hear voices yelling at you.
You can’t tell where the voices are coming from or whose hurtful words they are.
This is analogous to the world of discrimination on the Internet.
With the easy accessibility to email, social media and the Internet for the younger generation, concerns of cyberbullying are on the rise. But an even more alarming concern is when that bullying is taken one step further to cyber-racism, where racially offensive language or comments are used at a targeted audience.
Amie Breeze Harper, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of California, Davis, has encountered intense racist commentary in her attempt to build an online black female vegan community. She created a website, “Sistah Vegan” and wrote a book, addressing the racialized-gender vegan experience in the United States.
“I was trying to promote the book and my online website by looking for black women who were interested in joining my movement,” Harper said. “I got a lot of white people angry and they weren’t afraid to say it online.”
On her website, there is a display of varying comments — some supportive, some constructive. Others are accusatory and others very hurtful.
“You can see the evidence of bullying in the comments on my blog posts,” Harper, 36, said. “A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge, like I do, that race is an issue but it is. They react in mean ways.”
Professor Gary Bailey, of Simmons College’s School of Social Work in Boston, said there has been a “proliferation of hate speak on the Internet that is alarming” and it raises an enormous concern for those who see these types of things happening.
Through his studies and Internet usage, Bailey suggests that technology serves as the gateway to cyber-racism.
“Social media — it’s what I refer to as the ‘new white sheets on horseback in the night,’ ” Bailey said. It allows people to spew forth such venom and hatred and to do so from the comfort of their living rooms.”
He highlights the idea of cyber-racism taking place from the seclusion of one’s own home, shielded from the outside world.
“People feel that they can say far more in cyberspace than they ever dare face to face — that is what I mean by the new white sheets — which is a reference to the KKK and how they hid their identities behind sheets and aren’t held accountable for what one is saying that in my mind is hateful speech,” Bailey said.
Harper strived to make an online community where women of color could bond together to discuss alternative health and food consumption, like veganism and vegetarianism.
“I faced a lot of anger from people on my blog,” Harper said. “They didn’t like my ideas on race and food and that was just too bad. I was annoyed how people just blasted away on the website when I was trying to tie women together.”
Bailey said racism is still alive and sadly flourishing, and women continue to struggle despite the gains of feminist pioneers.
Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, said racist or discriminatory postings on the Internet, like the ones Harper faced, can be subject to legal consequences.
“Material on the Internet can be legally actionable under the familiar torts of defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” Nussbaum said. “But there is a catch.”
Nussbaum, who wrote the book “The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation” along with Saul Levmore, said there is a difference in responsibility of speech on the Internet verses in print.”
“However, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes website owners and providers of all legal liability for damages, as is not the case for newspapers, which do bear legal liability for defamatory material that they publish,” Nussbaum said.
As Bailey’s argument emphasized, the privacy of the Internet causes a problem for prosecution.
“The posters are potentially liable, but the anonymity shielded by the Internet makes it virtually impossible to sue,” Nussbaum said.
A recent example of cyber-racism, where offenders could not be punished, made headlines in the sports world.
“A sad example is the incident with my own Boston Bruins and the racist attacks on Washington player Joel Ward after he scored the winning goal in the playoffs leading up to the Stanley Cup,” Bailey said.
“Twitter went wild with angry Bruins fans spewing racist rants and the "N" word at Ward who happens to be Black,” Bailey said.
The Bruins Association publicly apologized and distanced itself from the behavior of their fans, but the damage was already done.
“Many people have told me with my vegan blog I am playing the race card, but I think there are important racial issues that should be discussed online,” Harper said. “I’m not just going to make white people not feel uncomfortable by keeping quiet.”
Nussbaum also points out that cyberbullying that is sexist or racist may be a civil rights violation. But the same problem applies: “If you don’t know who is doing it, then it is hard to take action,” Nussbaum said.
Referring to people’s freedom to post comments anonymously on her site, Harper said, “I like that, and I feel like if you’re a racist at least I know what I’m working with. Cyberspace allows me to experience racism that I wouldn’t normally encounter in real life and then I learn how to deal with it, not in a physical space.”
For younger and less well-known people, Nussbaum said racist and hurtful comments online can be significant, because it defines them in the public realm.
“The fact that the Internet circulates everywhere and is virtually indelible makes it unlike traditional gossip and slander,” Nussbaum said.
But Harper said she does see a light at the end of the dark tunnel of the Internet and will continue her work on her online vegan community.
“No matter how people abuse it now or in the future, the Internet is a great place for us to come together and share experience and find support within one another.”