LIVEBLOG: i can haz dream?: race and the internet

Posted on May 1, 2010 by Alex Leavitt
Categories: Alex, Liveblog

i can haz dream?: race and the internet

Baratunde Thurston- The Onion
Teresa Wu (My Mom is a FOB)
Serena Wu (My Mom is a FOB)
Christian Lander (Stuff White People Like)
Lisa Nakamura (University of Illinois – Champaign) [Moderator]

The internet is often painted as white and nerdy, but that’s just not the case. This panel will discuss the history, current status, and future of race on the internet. How is race signified online? Is the internet segregated? How are we doing on that digital divide? Why do black people take over Twitter at night? What DO white people like? Can non-Asians laugh at “My Mom is a Fob”? Will it ever be possible to have a rational discussion about race online??

Recorded by: @wphillips49 & @devanjedi
Edited by: @alexleavitt

NOTE: This is not a full transcription of the panel. If you have any corrections, please contact

Lisa: An amazing panel who have managed to make race funny. Race is really difficult for Americans to talk about. With the end of multicultural education. Race has become a really contested, hot button issue especially with new Arizona law. Now the Internet causes a digital divide; people of color don’t have the same access. People used to think that the Internet would make things more civil; but when people are anonymous things does not remain civil. The internet is a place where internet memes are becoming political. When something claims to be apolitical “just for the lulz” have the potential to be racially transformative. Couple of questions: the way that internet memes have become platforms for real conversations about race (not just for the lulz). High school students just cannot talk about race. Often begin sentences with “I’m not racist, but….” MySpace suffered white flight, fragmentation by race on the Internet. The panelists should talk about real conversations of race that have come up through Internet.

Baratunde: It’s a pleasure to be surrounded by Asians. Give it up for the Asians. Give it up for Lisa. I gave a talk at SXSW called How To Be Black Online. My name is Baratune, web editor for The Onion, co-editor of a black political blog and science show. How to be Black, also name of my book. Why are black people important? Assertion. Proof: we look good. History proves black people are the future. Rock N Roll. Hip hop. Ass/lip injections. Black people spend $. My qualifications: 32 years experience being Black. Lifetime experience. Some of my friends are black. I’ve watched The Wire.

Baratunde: Imagine there was a white racial profiling cookie that followed you around the internet and asked you if you belong there.

[Shows a chart of home broadband by type of folk, by race. Mobile internet use in another chart.]

Baratunde: When tethered and wireless access are considered together, the gaps in online engagement disappears. Black people on Twitter, the tweets come out at night. At night, you will see black people! They’re everywhere. The dozens is a tradition where people diss each other. [quotes Wikipedia on the dozens] The dozens: ribald banter, gives examples of the dozens on Twitter…”how black are you” Twitter mini-war. Back and forth about who is blacker. A couple thousand Tweets, a fun game between two dudes trash-talking in public.

Baratunde: On Twitter, at night you can find a bunch of Twitter #hashtags like #IfSantaWasBlack. Because of the nature of the Internet, everyone can see what you’re doing. Like “I don’t think this is a very good neighborhood.”

Baratunde: According to Edison Research, of the monthly Twitter users, 24% are African American. 3% Asian, apparently you guys are right here (pointing at fellow panel members). Twitter users are very frequent SMS Users. Most popular TV shows in US, #9 is BET Awards.

Baratunde: Maybe black people are not building, just using technology. I was in NYC in SoHo. She was looking for 80 Van Dam St. The address she had was wrong. She said “They don’t want us to use this stuff. How do I figure it out?” At the same time, in the barbershop all the people had smart phones, arguing about Androids, iPhones.

[Baratunde plugs @BWBconference and Jack & Jill politics]

[Baratunde makes a joke about how the Asian girls have a notebook/pen and him, a black man, has a laptop.]

Theresa and Serena Wu: We are not sisters. We have two blogs, My Mom Is A Fob and My Dad Is A Fob. DOT COM. But what’s a FOB? Fob is more of a concept, if you take 24 napkins from Chipolte, if your mom wipes your dog’s feet before it walks into the house… then your mom/dad is a fob, that’s fobby. Stands for “fresh off the boat,” we’ve taken it and repossessed it, from derogatory to something endearing. Cute. No longer a slur, is about pride in bridging cultures. We both grew up in the Bay Area, all parents from Taiwan, we are second-gen Asian Americans. On the blog we talk about communication/language barriers. Even though we’re technically minorities, we NEVER felt like minorities (85% Asian high school). We didn’t have a football team… even PTA newsletter was bilingual. People say it’s easier for us to embrace culture, since we were the rule, not the exception when we grew up. Blog is a collection of stories, photos, whatever, because they want to share these experiences, not mock. We are NOT just making fun of our parents — it’s about sharing these experiences. The question is, are we furthering stereotypes? We don’t think so, we show how parents are fun, we’re dispelling the notion of a “typical” Asian American household. These stories are unedited, content from all backgrounds, unbiased, first-hand-accounts. The website makes people appreciate their parents, and as long and you’re not laughing maliciously we’re ok with it.

Christian: Writes Stuff White People Like. It’s 150 things that white people like, so you can infiltrate and exploit white people. MySpace is digital Detroit. A place where only minorities and indie bands remain. My background, this panel reminds me a lot of my high school. Two year on my high school football team. With Sri Lankans and Chinese, I was one of the fatter guys. We practiced when the transvestite prostitutes “shift” ended. They were Canadian, so they had a good sense of humor. As a 15 year old boy, you realize you have options! I went to Jarvis Collegiate– for the richest neighborhood, public housing, new immigrants. Kids from all those neighborhoods went to the same school. It was an interesting experience. We had a cricket team. And an awesome badminton team. An interesting mix of race, class, immigrant. Rich white kids, poor white kids all in one school. Stuff White People Like was from this experience you were called a banana or a coconut or a twinkie or an oreo, based on your skin color and the white inside. That’s where it came from. The concept that things you like could be branded as white came from my experience in high school. I’m really familiar with derogatory terms for white people in Chinese and I can order dim sum. That is the extent of my language knowledge. That portal was closed.

Christian: Has a white person ever had TMobile Sidekick?

Baratunde: danah boyd did.

Audience man: Paris Hilton!

Lisa: When you do that, what is the response and most shocking thing that has been said to you? RaceFail is a genuine aspect of this. What is the impact from public?

Serena: When people first respond to the site, they aren’t sure how to use the word. “Do we say f-o-b, or fob.” Once we were interviewed by a guy in Seattle, every question was asked really carefully… whenever you put something racial out there, people get nervous. So non-Asians aren’t sure if they are “allowed” to laugh at the stuff on our website.

Theresa: We have gotten really positive feedback from the Asian American community, in the 2 years since we’ve had the blog we’ve mainly gotten positive feedback. Maybe 5 negative emails, but otherwise it’s been really positive.

Baratunde: I’ve gotten a wide range of feedback. YouTube has been the best, most “intelligent.” They called me a dumbass, liberal, welfare sucker. Most interesting are through email — they feel safer. Europeans ask over email, where they see me as an American commentator — how is it different? There is often a knee-jerk reaction of “Why are you talking about that?” People are very annoyed that these things keep coming up. People would rather avoid it, do we have to do this again.

Christian: I got hate mail 20 minutes ago. Title: Please Shut the Fuck Up.
[reads the entire, hate-filled email.]

Baratunde: He called you “chief.”

Christian: Yeah, it’s derogatory like calling me “big guy.” I get more anonymous comments that are really angry that want all these diseases to befall me because I said white people like yoga and expensive sandwiches.

[Talks about another email he got that he got]

Lisa: What does anonymity do?

Christian: Didn’t the clan wear hoods?

Baratunde: How do you deal with race on Twitter? All the ugly boils out to the surface. Even a debate about healthcare ends in the N word or you’re gay or something because there is no accountability. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have anonymity, but it’s the price you pay.

Lisa: Can you talk about why Stuff White People Like crossed over?

Christian: It’s hard to figure out why it crossed over, and I got lucky I think… it’s hard, it’s an update on what people consider white humor. People knew all the old ones, mayonnaise, golf, and dancing badly, I mean I know white people like these things, and then when I made the list, put it online, and the white people actually get there, they saw more than the standard jokes and got really weirded out by what they saw… they also go click, yep yep, I know this asshole. Also on the race aspect, I put my own picture up there, wanted people to know I was also making fun of myself. Until then people assumed I was black and they were SO disappointed to finding out I was white, it would be so much more subversive if I were black. We even pitched a show to FOX; they passed though.

Lisa: How has your life been since then?

Christian: My life since then has been awesome, I get to travel around, it’s been amazing. Fantastic.

Lisa: How has the segmentation been on the internet?

Baratunde: We are making a false separation between races. “Why do black people use Twitter disproportionately?” It’s possible that it’s 1/4 black. I don’t think the question is different because of the technology. Twitter is ready made for things like ‘the dozens’ to have a high velocity dissing circle, like a chat room or a school yard where we live out who we are. It doesn’t surprise me. Certain video games or certain movies have the same kind of correlations.

Serena: I don’t know why more Asian people like using Xanga. I think it just spread virally, friends share stuff with their friends.

Christian: The white people like The Huffington Post.

Lisa: Why is race an issue on the internet? Isn’t everyone on equal footing? Because of anonymity?

Christian: I know what we get OFF the internet. The internet, even though it’s a huge part of our lives, we still meet in person… like this conference. Then when you put in the anonymity things change. So there’s a ton of horrible racist stuff in the comment section on my site. If I were to delete it, I’d be deleting the person who posted it. I figured that you needed to put it out there and confront it. It’s all there, all the time — no matter what video you put online, almost immediately all this racist stuff comes out, and I think it’s important to show that. Confront it.

Theresa: In your book (to Christian), you mention cyber types. You say the internet is privileged, a white space, and so most people assume authors online are white. A lot of online blogs that deal with race, especially Asians who blog, actually want that voice, they actually want to be visible, not be anonymous.

Lisa: When you publicly put out a discourse about race, you are now a forum for where that will happen. There is a lot of shocking stuff, Christian has a 100 this minute. Have you had the opposite where someone had an epiphany.

Baratunde: A year ago New York Post published police shooting a gorilla and saying someone else will have to write the stimulus. I went on MSNBC to talk about if it was racist. And to talk about the psychological effects and why it was important. We were on air in 4 minutes which is long for TV, then we did 2 rounds each on YouTube 7 minutes, then 5 minutes, creating a debate in the infinite YouTube. He blogged it on all of our sites in our own communities, at least if there are people who are decent you can have a dialogue.

[Baratunde and Christian go in to a mock fight about bicycles -- fixed gear vs. free gear]

Serena: While we didn’t set out to teach people about our culture, it does make people more aware of the dynamics within our families, and the complex nature of Asian American households.

Theresa: And some Asians may have been stereotyped, may have tried to assimilate completely. So we’ve gotten emails what say “Oh thank you for showing me this, my mom does that too, and it makes me feel less alone.”

Serena: I’ve also gotten an email from this white guy that used to hate Asians, and when he stumbled across your blog it reminded me of that transition period.

Christian: I’ve had a lot of professors and TAs write and say… the book talks a lot about white privilege, and white people HATE talking about this, it’s really hard, and the profs and grad students send their students to the site, which forces the students to confront the class issues. Like, REI is white, you’re pricing kayaks, come on. And at least then the conversation is easier, and humor is the entry point. Not jammed down their throats with critical theory.

Lisa: We all know that the lulz is a really affective tool, attention is the scarce commodity. Ethan talked about memes from other countries. We may end up with many local internets. I’m wondering about who the audience is, is it a broad audience, is a racialized audience. Is that a good or bad thing?

Theresa: Our audience is a little more racialized, though we never intended to target a specific demographic. But we do talk almost exclusively about Asian American experiences…

Serena: We don’t say “only Asians invited,” it just ends up that way. We get submissions from other groups, about Russian moms…

Baratunde: For J’n'J politics, which is a black political middle class blog. Jack and Jill was an organization for upper middle class blacks. J’n'J politics is not affiliated with that; it is 40-50% black. I’m honestly trying to talk to everybody. The black people are more like a sigh of relief, confirming their existence. For others, it is more accessible. When it works. When it doesn’t, the “Asians don’t get it”.

Christian: I cast the widest net possible, since everyone on the internet is either white or annoyed with white people…
[crowd laughs]

Lisa: Is there a difference between how racism and homophobia is dealt with on the internet?

Christian: The racism stuff’s for the internet, the homophobia is for the X-box live…

Serena: On My Mom’s a FOB, you see that a lot of Asian American parents are afraid of gay people, which is a stereotype that sometimes gets undermined by the site itself. One of our highest-rated post was about some kid’s mom, who was finally starting to understand her kid was a homosexual…

Baratunde: J’n'J politics was started because there weren’t a lot of black political blogs, but there were gay black blogs. It has come up some on our blogs, but not a lot. More on our comments.

Lisa: Do you moderate comments?

Baratunde: We try. In the beginning, we were happy to get comments. 2008 was our big swing year because we were saying things about race. And things got out of control. I shouldn’t have to tell you what not to say. Grownups are worse than kids, because they know they shouldn’t do it and still do.

Serena: We used to moderate comments more. But now the community self-moderates. Actually I’m surprised by the lack of hate.

Theresa: Plus we have loyal readers, they back us up whenever someone posts mean stuff anonymously.

Lisa: Is there going to be a 2nd generation my mom is a FOB? Like drives a Camry and watches ice skating.

Serena: Maybe at some point… but I don’t know.

Lisa: Can a fixed gear helicopter be a meme?

[Christian laughs about that]

Lisa: What about avatars and race, people changing their appearance in avatars of other races? What does your Mii look like?

Chriatian: Exactly like me, I go for accuracy. It also depends on who you play in a video game, as a white male I don’t need an avatar, everyone looks like me already. They’re trying to change that, but the protagonist is almost always white anyway.

Baratunde: I will tag on to Christian. Resident Evil featured slaughtered black people by a white protagonist. Wouldn’t it be a more educational game if you had fighting colonialism? I don’t have an idea about the people who use avatars.

Serena: I’m just here to talk about my website, I don’t know about avatars. I just use my face…

Baratunde: I was once the_swine_flu on Twitter, which was a picture of a pig who did not like people.

Audience question: What do you think about someone acting a different race online?

Christian: At least they won’t end up on Dateline…

Baratunde: We should do that. We should show up at their house and say “You are not really Indonesian”.

Christian: You’re the racist one now.

Baratunde: It does bother me. Hip Hop group said “Blackness isn’t a race, it’s a state of mind.” No, bitch, it’s a race. Socially, economically, it is a race. There are more productive methods of understanding people of other races like talking to them.

Audience: What does your family think because the previous generation had this minefield that you are now frolicking in.

Christian: My dad tries to take credit for everything. Well — I’m Canadian, and we’ve been making fun of white people for a long time. But my dad says I steal all his jokes. The thing was, growing up, his neighborhood was so diverse… race was something people talked about.

Serena: My mom laughs even though I don’t think she knows what any of it meant. My dad just says he doesn’t get it, looks once and then never looks again. But my mom doesn’t really understand why it’s funny, I have to explain it to her.

Baratunde: My mother, when she was alive, was great. Was born in the 1940s, was in the streets marching, made me memorize all the countries in Africa before you can have fun outside. When I was doing public things, she was very supportive. Her big concern was remember why you are doing it because it’s easy to get sucked in to the machine. I try to keep it in mind but it’s not all in my hands.

Christian: I just have to say, Question 6 is brilliant, “Let’s talk about Jersey Shore; does it propagate stereotypes about orange people?”

Lisa: You all chose to write about race, how racist do you think things are these days and the Internet is helping?

Serena: For Asian Americans, I think it’s improving. Not because of our website, that’s what people do at work, but like other Asian American blogs, they discuss identity in an open honest way…

Baratunde: It’s hard to know. Writing about race chose me. With the Obama thing, it’s uncovered a lot of ugliness. Pew Study that I read, because I’m a nerd: white people get really angry with Democrat president. But with Obama this is the angriest they have ever been.

Christian: The wrong kind of white people… that’s what we call them.

Baratunde: It’s been worrying to see ugliness. When you normalize and mainstream ugly ideas it’s a bad thing, like Glen Beck. In some ways the Internet makes things better in some ways worse. It’s more about change.

Christian: What I see is, the changes that happened in the ’60s, the institutionalized racism, has been “fixed.” But at the tea parties… what people don’t understand is that what they’re doing is also horribly racist, but they don’t see it that way. Because it’s not institutional in those ways it used to be. As far as the internet goes… it brings out the best and the worst… my site got linked to a white supremacist site, they added things like “ethically pure babies,” “Mein Kampf,” etc.

Baratunde: The beautiful thing about the Internet is that it gives everybody a voice. The problem is that it gives everybody a voice.

Audience: I wrote the original hate speech policy for YouTube. How do you balance the freedom of expression and preserve that dialogue. Where do you draw a line between hate speech and offensive speech. It never felt right to completely sweep it under the carpet.

Serena: Some companies are overly sensitive… we tried to submit our website to Apple but they rejected the request for an app because of “objectionable content…” and there was no objectionable content.

Baratunde: You say Apple Hates Asian People!

Baratunde: The policy in YouTube, how was it implemented.

Audience guy: The scale is very hard.

Baratunde: I’m very loathe to promote restrictions on speech. Personal attacks, threatening comments, lives or safety. Our own blog policy is being refined.

Christian: I have to say, hatred towards white people has actually worked out pretty well for us.

Baratunde: I don’t know. I’ve drawn a few lines about personal threats, but I don’t know. I think there is value in seeing beauty and horror. Free speech is a part of what we need.

Christian: And a failure to recognize these people, you get the (false) sense that they don’t exist…

Audience: How does this translate from race to religion? Muslims face the same issue. On ChatRoulette either I see dicks, or I get called a terrorist because I’m brown.

Baratunde: Show them your dick.

Christian: It’s tough. It’s hard to say how that plays out.

Baratunde: Part of my frustration with raise is that we’ve done shit. Now it’s white people’s turn. Similarly, we need to stand up for people you are being confused with.

Lisa: Serena and Teresa said that it’s just something for people to look at at work. The things that people choose to look at is what these people have accomplished so let’s give them a hand.

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