Ambient Digital Racism: an Interview with Assistant Professor Felipe Agudelo
We wanted to see how those counter narrative expressions, what we call ambient digital racism, can be confused with normal, casual race talk that appears harmless but is actually deeply racist.
The following is a conversation between Felipe Agudelo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies Program at Simmons University. Dr. Agudelo’s current project, “It’s Not How You Say It, It’s What You Say: Ambient Digital Racism and Racist Discourses on Twitter” examines counter narrative tweets to Black Lives Matter hashtags – particularly #WhiteLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and #AllLivesMatter – and how language and knowledge are adapting to disseminate racist discourse.
What is your current project Dr. Agudelo?
Felipe Agudelo: My project looks at how we build discourses around racism and different types of racist thinking that can go into social media, stay there, and then be disseminated by people. Those discourses don’t represent what we usually consider hate speech because of the method of dissemination.
I went into social media, more specifically Twitter, after the killing of George Floyd by the police to contextualize what people were saying about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the event itself, and the response to it. With my research assistant, Natalie Albrich, we looked at counter narratives of the BLM movement represented through three different hashtags: #AllLivesMatter, #WhiteLivesMatter, and #BlueLivesMatter.
These hashtags represent counter narratives because the argument of “You (BLM) are not the only ones that matter” misses the point of what BLM is saying. We wanted to see how those counter narrative expressions, what we call ambient digital racism, can be confused with normal, casual race talk that appears harmless but is actually deeply racist.
How does ambient digital racism get confused with casual, deeply racist talk?
Felipe Agudelo: Because the way we express racism has adapted and changed, and it can now permeate different platforms. Often, we still believe that racism is expressed in the same ways that it was expressed 100 years ago; through racial slurs or lynching — those types of overt expressions of racism. However, it has evolved into new, sophisticated – even elegant – ways of expressing racism that may sound unintentional, but in reality, that talk is very intentional.
The problem becomes racist expressions are now negotiable. Someone can say, “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that” or “I didn’t actually say something racist.” Racist talk is being exercised, it is being perpetuated; however, it is also being negotiated. For example, after George Floyd was killed, one woman posted on Twitter “Love my freckles. #AllLivesMatter.” A statement about loving freckles sounds innocent, but if you go into the details of that tweet, such as the date posted – nine days after George Floyd’s murder – why did she choose to post it during this time? It seems to be asking for some sort of white pride because #AllLivesMatter also goes along with statements like “Let’s take back our country” or discourses suggesting feeling threatened by people of color. Those discourses are starting to shape a new way of thinking, a new way that racism is represented.
Racist talk is being exercised, it is being perpetuated; however, it is also being negotiated.
The problem, further, is that this happens within the context of a society where apparently nobody is racist. The adaptations of racist talk means we’ve lost track of what represents racism. Someone can say, “Oh I’m sorry. I was having a bad moment, but I’m not actually racist.” However, they did or said something racist; but because we’ve been negotiating racism, we’ve lost track of those things that represent racism. It becomes normalized or accepted, like ambient noise in the background.
What is the significance of that adaptation?
Felipe Agudelo: Well, we adapt ourselves to certain types of knowledge and expressions of knowledge. But in this case, with expressions of knowledge representing racism, we’ve gotten used to them. Society overall gets used to what we normalize or legitimize.
Right now, we live in a racist society, therefore, we have racist people, racist behaviors, racist thoughts, and we have racist knowledge. That racist knowledge has been posed in our society, so when someone decides to hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter, that person—based on the elective affinity theory—has a meaning affinity with that group. They chose to be part of that discourse and “knowledge” being built. So, they are not innocent of racism. Why would someone choose affinity groups – whether social, political, intellectual even – that are racist, if they are innocent of racism?
I’m reminded of a term you’ve discussed and written about: convenient ignorance. That seems to be exactly what you’re talking about here, and I’m wondering, do you think convenient ignorance is willful or could it be unintentional?
Felipe Agudelo: It's completely intentional. We measure the moral character of society, and moral consciousness of society, not on people’s intentions but on their actions. Because actions reflect the knowledge we have – there is no way that we can separate our actions from our knowledge. For instance, the way we cook is based on the knowledge we have about cooking.
The expressions of the moral consciousness of a society that has a convenient knowledge to perpetuate a relationship of power also has a racial contract. We live in a society where one group of people are the subjects of the contract, and they are the ones in power and who will receive the benefits of the contract. Objects of the contract, on the other hand, are those that need to be exploited in order to guarantee privileges to the subjects.
What constitutes racism is based on what we want you to believe about what constitutes racism.
So, when I talk about the epistemology of ignorance, which may sound contradictory because epistemology talks about knowledge, what we're saying is that we know certain ignorances. Society has chosen what to let us know because it works for the dominant discourse. Therefore, what constitutes racism is based on what we want you to believe about what constitutes racism. Society has chosen what we consider is racist or not racist through the ways we negotiate. All of that is very intentional.
The knowledge that our society has built is systemic.
Felipe Agudelo: Systemic and convenient because it works for a group of people and their privileges. So, the epistemology of ignorance essentially claims that if I'm going to create an intersection of the epistemology of ignorance and the racial contract, then let's keep this contract working by promoting this specific type of ignorance – this convenient ignorance. It is created to keep our privileges as the subjects of the contract.
And why do you think Twitter, or social media in general, is so effective at legitimizing this particular racist discourse?
Felipe Agudelo: That's a great question because we think about social media as entertainment, as a way to entertain ourselves, but it has become a way to produce and disseminate any kind of knowledge, with no filters. Twitter started as a platform telling people where you were, what you were doing, and it has since changed to a platform of sharing what we think, our opinion. It is being used by people now as a place to express their feelings, perceptions and “knowledge.”
The problem with social media is that when you click “like” or you retweet a message, you are validating the knowledge in that message. And people are not always going to question where the knowledge in a message comes from; it can then spread extremely fast, with no filters, to collectively decide or define what constitutes racism (or other knowledge).
Because language, as anything else, evolves.
So, our engagement with racist rhetoric or racist discourse has evolved to work on social media?
Felipe Agudelo: Correct. So now it isn’t about racism through the ways we used to perceive racists or racist behaviors. If you are familiar with the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, that is what she argues: racism has changed, as well as the ways we experience it. And we live in a society where even though we tend to believe things are getting better, things are just getting different.
In our research, we try to identify different frameworks in which racist expressions or discourses are manifested through social media. We challenge those especially who pretend not to be racist, but who actually are racist. Everybody has a stereotype toward other people because that's what we have been told is true; those are things we heard when we were developing our knowledge structures from family, friends, teachers.
The struggle is to identify those knowledge structures and to confront them. When we talk about how to fight racism, I think the first step is to really confront your true self; not the one that you pretend to be or that you want to be, but your true self that learned the knowledge structures that lead to stereotyping. Real change cannot occur if too many people are pretending rather than confronting.
Is that why this work is important?
Felipe Agudelo: Yes. I think it is important for us to constantly challenge what we think we know. In the case of racism, there are so many gaps to what we think that we know; we cannot possibly have all the knowledge about those gaps. So, through this project, what we were trying to do is to find those gaps in what we think we know so we don't fail as a society.
Because we live in a society where we tend to look for the recipes to success; we think the recipes to get it right follow A, B, C, D and then, congratulations, you're an anti-racist. But how can you be an anti-racist if you don't know what constitutes racism? It is important to challenge what we think racism is because it isn’t a recipe. The discourses used to express racist knowledge or thoughts can be taken for granted, especially if we see that society keeps failing.
It isn’t about racism through the ways we used to perceive racists or racist behaviors…racism has changed, as well as the ways we experience it.
We keep approaching “problem solving” the same ways: racial talks and racial workshops, and the like. We keep seeing it every day; look at what happened after the officer was convicted for murdering George Floyd: within 24 hours there were several cases of Black individuals being killed by the police. There is something wrong when we keep repeating the same things, the same solutions, but racism is still permeating all levels of society. It needs to change, and this research is intended to do that.