Yesterday i wrote a post titled, ‘Before you favourite, RT, forward…’ which started with Back to the Future memes [not serious at all] and ended with alleged swimming lesson racism [very serious]. The focus being on people on various social media platforms sharing stories that arrive as ‘Breaking News’ or are sensational or emotionally-charged, before they have bothered to check whether they are authentic or not.
i want to take it a little bit further today, while continuing to emphasise yesterday’s point.
And i want to address it through the lens of the ‘swimming lessons’ debacle in Cape Town where, in a nutshell, a woman with a black African sounding surname tried to enrol her children in swimming lessons with an organisation and they told her there was no space. Then she created a new email address with a very white sounding surname and they were instantly accepted. The emails were shared and it looked like a case of obvious racism.
SOME IMPORTANT CONTEXT
In terms of establishing context, i want to share a comment my friend Linde wrote which is so crucial:
Linde: This is what the minority of business owners in Cape Town who insist on alienating black clientele have created. Even I have created a white alias e-mail profile to ensure that I get treated fairly on every occasion. Unless this rise of discrimination towards black people ends or at least lowers to the same level as in other parts of SA black people will continue being on edge and since it’s difficult to get the law to act on such cases social media is the only recourse. I get that innocent people’s businesses are getting hurt – this is unfortunate, but I hope that instead of getting defensive these businesses realise the reality of the situation for black people and consider ways of ensuring that their procedures are as transparent as possible.
Cape Town has a recent, let’s say present and completely unacceptable history of racism. i have heard that from a number of black people who live in Joburg and have visited or come here for work, and i am aware of it from a number of incidents involving restaurants, people looking to rent and neighbourhood watch incidents. We seem to be doing worse than the rest of the country. And anyone committed to being an Ally, as i most definitely am, has to has to has to be aware of this and take this deathly seriously and be prepared to stand up against it any time it raises its head. Our starting point needs to be that this stuff is real, it happens and it has caused a lot of hurt for a lot of people and the kinds of experiences that i as a white person have never had to face.
AN ALLY IS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T SIT BACK
So the moment someone posted this story on my page i sprung into action, emailing Virgin Active who i heard were linked to this school. I received some information from them suggesting that we did not have the full story [apparently not all the emails were shared which can completely be used to change the flavour of the story] as well as testimony from a friend of mine who uses the school and told me the accusations had taken her completely by surprise as she has used the school for a number of years and it is completely diverse.
Now this is where events got a little unfortunate. My personal context was that i was in the middle of a busy day and i caught a whiff of this when i popped into Facebook and didn’t have sufficient time to respond more extensively and so i jumped on, on my phone, and typed a quick status update asking people to pause until we had more story and this is where i got it wrong.
Brett: Okay everybody with the Virgin Active messaging and the swimming lesson panic I have a friend there who is on it and the investigation is happening but we need to slow down a little now and not get crazy before we have the full story. Good people are checking it out. As they should.
i realise now that i made a poor choice of words and despite the rush i was in i should have done better. Ncumisa, Linde and Sindile tackled me on my comments and rightly so. When many black people have spoken about incidents such as these or being refused entrance at a restaurant etc they have been labelled ‘crazy’ and so that word in itself was a bad choice. i’m not sure that i know how i could have conveyed what i needed to [some of the information i received was behind the scenes and in confidence and so while i had some extra info i was not able to share it all, which put me in a very tricky place] but i do have a good idea that this statement came across as many others have done in terms of deligitimising the concerns and making it seem like i was trying to explain away or defend something that had come across as clearly racist.
i get it. i completely do. i messed up.
TRUE, RIGHT, HELPFUL, KIND
When we look at any comment we make via social media and possible any article we share or joke we ‘like’ i think these four words can serve as a helpful guide for us.
Is what i am about to say True?
Is this point i am trying to make Right?
Is me expressing this thought or opinion going to be Helpful?
Am i being Kind in this moment?
A 5th one i thought of as i was writing these out was, ‘Is this Clear?’ which relates to word usage, context, language and more – are people going to receive the message i am trying to give?
i think these two overlap and my previous post deals with a lot of that.
Some comments relating to the swimming pool incident but which can relate to other online shares:
Dave: It gets so ugly. People don’t have all the facts, but then get horrifically personal and aggressive. it becomes anti-social media. ordinary moms, dads, people we know, MDs who lead companies, respected (if not respectable) radio presenters all go on a venomous tirade of filthy vitriol. I spent the weekend unfriending and blocking a lot of people who should know better, and who I don’t need to add negativity to my life.
Joanne: “Cock-ups and misunderstandings are better resolved directly than via social media.” – yes, yes and YES. I am totally over people coming straight to SM with everything. If they haven’t had an immediate response, if things don’t go 100% their way, if ALL their dreams don’t come true: go straight to social media and totally obliterate someone’s life or business. Which basically makes such a person, at best, a spoilt brat or, at worst, a bully. I’d like someone to show it to me. What? The written warranty they received at birth guaranteeing them total happiness at all times. If you can’t produce it, then get into the queue with the rest of us and listen to the boring music while waiting for an agent to attend to your call.
Lisa: My heart sank reading the mudstorm that met Aimee’s allegations. Mainly because I’ve dealt with that company for about four years, and could tell here from experience that it’s much more a case of #everydayincompetence than #everydayracism. Honestly, when I want to reschedule my kids’ time slots, the admin lady always says ‘waiting list’ and doesn’t get back to me. I suspect they partly run quite an old-fashioned paper-based business where it’s quite tricky to figure out the schedules. When you nag and ask the swimming teachers, who know better what slots are open or not, you can eventually get things moved around in under a week or so. I’ve had similar experiences with preschool and primary school waiting lists, where one staff member is more helpful or informed than another, or you kind of need to rattle their cage to remind them who you are. I find the witchhunt response on FB (“just close your business now you racists!”) a bit hard to stomach.
Linde: It’s funny how we live in a society that loves Whistle Blowers. Whistle blowers rarely have concrete evidence – their very act of whistle blowing is the catalyst for investigations being initiated. It’s funny how everyone disapproves of the whistle blowing in this instance but not even one person has suggested of a better more transparent way of doing business in Cape Town. Is this because people don’t value the contribution black people make to white businesses or the SA economy?
Claire: It’s the whole idea of Internet Mob Justice… People rant, other people share, and before you know it, with very few facts at hand, people are shutting down businesses or destroying people. I’m not saying Cape Town is innocent in the race problem. Far from it. But like they said, it’s more incompetence and bad admin skills in this instance. Mob justice… If it’s not okay on the streets, why is it okay online?
i don’t think it is undermining our quest to root out racism at all to ask that we do our due diligence when it comes to the facts of a story before we start handing out pitchforks and lighting torches. i do get that ‘questioning the validity of stories of racism in Cape Town’ has become a huge source of pain for those who have lived them and so there is a fine line [and many people in this case believed that the emails shared constituted enough proof to proceed] and we need to be sure that we are not trying to make excuses or defend the guilty by asking for proof. We also need to be committed to seeking out those answers if we are not sure.
My first response [before i shared the story] was to try and verify the story by emailing Virgin. i imagine that not everyone that had something to say to/about me did that much. Which is typical of the kind of slacktivism social media encourages – getting heated up and vocal and sharing, retweeting, liking, but not necessarily doing anything practical. If we are going to call for truth and rightness in terms of dealing with issues that are raised then we have to be prepared to go that extra mile and make sure we do the necessary research as far as possible and don’t simply use the line as a means of backing up our inaction.
My friend Jez shared this story of a palestinian boy killed by Israel during the First Intifada. With the Israel/Palestine situation being a hugely volatile one, this photo immediately rocketted through social media spheres evoking huge emotion and anger and passion for the cause. Until a reporter did a little bit of digging and found that the image was actually taken from a movie called ‘The Kingdom of the Ants’.
Seen the movie ‘Wag the Dog?’ A fictitious war is created for televisions across America to cover up an infidelity of the president. The scary thing is that it is not just a movie any more and we have to be more and more careful about the ‘news’ we so easily trust. With anyone able to jump onto Photoshop these days as well as more high profile digital manipulation, seeing is definitely not believing any more.
While we may not always be able to establish absolute truth because of things like that, we can and should be responsible in doing as much as we can to corroborate the authenticity of anything significant that we share before rushing to click.
Next up, a helpful thing to ask before we post, share, comment, is the question: Is this Helpful?
It may be right and true, but sometimes the thing we have to add may not be all that helpful. It may distract from the real issue at hand, it may cause people to go off on a tangent, it may unnecessarily invoke anger [like my use of the word ‘crazy’ – while i understand what i meant and was trying to get across it was a very unhelpful word to use and i should have done better!] and more.
Is this adding to the present discussion? Is this going to be useful in moving us forwards?
If we can get into the habit of asking this question our social media presence will be enhanced hugely.
Different Dave: We all need to be careful of that hair-trigger that develops on our social media weapons of mass destruction. And when someone stands up and challenges the reaction to an event like this, that same hair-trigger goes off in their direction too.
Lastly, is it Kind? It may be Truthful and Right, and it may even be Helpful, but is this thing that i am about to share, Kind?
The Bible talks about ‘Speaking the Truth in Love’ which doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘Speaking the Truth in Nice’ and we see Jesus get hardcore with both the religious leaders of the day [Pharisees, Sadducees] and His own followers when they are being hypocritical or misrepresenting the Truth.
But sometimes asking the question, ‘Is this Kind?’ will help us to make good decisions, and more often than not it will help us choose relationship over being right [a great choice to err towards].
Will this mean we never get it wrong? Probably not. Life can be quite complicated and a tone-free environment is not the easiest place to always communicate what you think, feel and mean and even if you do it perfectly, someone else’s day, frame of mind and context may come into play against them. There is much space and need for grace, forgiveness and love. BUT i do think that if we ask the question – Is what i am about to share True, Right, Help, Kind and Clear? – more often before our fingers vomit their words upon the keyboard and out onto the screen, that we may be well on our way.
For the sake of building community and working towards reconciliation and building both a better province, nation and world, let’s commit ourselves to trying a little bit harder on this one.
This feels like a post which will be helpful for a lot of people to read, so if you agree please take a moment to share this via your social media channels – that is, if you feel like it is right, true, helpful, kind and clear…