For young Black Africans in Australia, social media can be especially dangerous as they witness footage of violence against blacks, struggle with “foreign” views, and encounter racist trolling, posts or comments.
Despite these challenges, social media can offer young black Africans in Australia a safe space to positively express blackness, our new research shows.
Our study, published today in the Australian Journal of Social Issues, is an ethnographic study of the social media activity of 15 young people (aged 16-25) who self-identify as African and live in Australia.
Participants agreed to be followed and/or friended on social media to observe their online practice for six months. They were also asked about their social media experiences.
Our research shows how these young people are using social media to challenge anti-black narratives and reclaim some of their racial dignity.
Read more: ‘Battlefields’: Highly Skilled Black Africans on Racial Microaggressions at Work
Racial dignity and anti-black racism
One of us (Gatweary) defined racial dignity as:
the immutable, unconditional value of blacks as human beings. To have racial dignity, one must look through a humanized lens and enjoy basic respect, compassion, and acceptance in an interpersonal and systemic context.
Anti-black racism is a unique form of racism, especially directed against dark-skinned blacks.
Blackness studies claim that there is something special and specific about the visibility of black bodies, which awakens the imagination of white Australia. They are “read” as too indigestible, too different, too foreign, too dangerous, too conspicuous, all too.
Zuberi (age 25) also highlighted how fighting blacks leads to the hypercriminalization of blacks. This leads to excessive control by society and the criminal justice system. He reflected on one example:
We went back to the station and filled up Myki. And two inspectors were standing a few meters away from us, on the side. And it was probably around 9pm, a little late. and they were like, “These people always do no good.” And then my cousin is like, “What? What do you mean?” It’s like he’s really pissed off, and I think that’s when you kind of wonder. […] you ask a lot of things.
Experiences of anti-black racism in the real world may influence how young African Australians use social media and participate in racial discussions online.
Our other journal article from this study reported on how black African Australians used social media to gain attention and engage in positive Afro-black expression. But they were also afraid of making white people uncomfortable, which could provoke racial trolling or racial slurs online.
King (18) reflected on his attempts to separate himself from the label “African gangs” often given to young black Africans in Australia. This provided the basis for the design of his online avatar and profile photo, intended to evoke a “friendly” image:
Sometimes people just look at your profile and think you’re a bad person or a bad influence based on your picture. They will decide that you are like other black people they have seen in your life, they will decide that you are the same person.
When faced with racist content in their news feed, most members consciously chose to stay away from the comment section, which is colloquially considered a “cesspool of hate”. Zuberi explained:
You see something on social media, but I try not to get involved in it so much […] And for this reason, I prefer not to watch the comments.
Creating Online Borders and Communities
Young people in our study reported that digital spaces were safer than physical, offline environments in a white-majority Australian context.
Many have used social media features such as blocking, deleting, muting, and unsubscribing to effectively bypass racism online. They also used the “close friends” and “personal stories” features to share their racial experiences.
This allowed people to engage in the kind of self-representation they chose, including posting photos of themselves or discussing their experiences, in a “safe digital space”.
Social media has also proven to be particularly helpful in connecting black African youth who are geographically separated from each other. Many mused on how helpful these connections were, often noting that they were the “only black kid” in their school or neighborhood.
So social media became a place where participants looked for connections that honored and validated their experiences.
Nia (18) told us that these communities helped her develop a positive sense of identity as a young black woman in Australia:
I created a shared space on each platform that allowed me to feel comfortable with myself. […] I feel like I belong to the wider black diaspora […] I didn’t actually grow up with Sudanese, I grew up in (location removed for privacy reasons) which is very white. So yes, I created a community, I have connections and I love it.
Fear of racial trolling persists
Human rights lawyer Nyadol Newon said the racial trolling is fueled by the belief that discussions about racism are a lack of gratitude “for the hand that fed you.”
Our study participants also expressed awareness of the types of content they could and could not post, demonstrating how the fear of offending white people in digital spaces continues to shape their online practices.
As Mark (age 25) said:
I try to be very careful in the digital space, because when it comes to race, you never know who will use it against you.
The use of certain social media features allowed our participants to bypass traditional media and engage in self-presentations of their own creativity instead. In this way, they were able to restore aspects of their racial dignity by developing positive negative narratives on the Internet.
Read more: The Power of No: Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Black Women’s Resistance