Race and Empathy in The Age of Phone Apps

While today Twitter is one of the biggest platforms for social justice organization online, it’s important that these movements can spread on emerging platforms as well.

by Aja Barber on May 20th, 2015

Super is fun. And how! I was hooked immediately. Pairing images with messages (in the style of Barbara Kruger) is absolutely addictive. Super magically combines two of my favorite apps, Pinterest and Twitter, in a marvelous way. I love the sound effects and I find the layout appealing — clearly, there is a lot of graphic design consulting thrown in the mix, and it does not go unnoticed.

For the most part, the Super community is welcoming. I enjoy that the staff is active and certain users are quick to give you a follow just to get you started. Everything was very warm and fuzzy for me until I opened my big mouth about race. That’s when things went lopsided.

At its best, the internet is a gathering place for people who constantly fight for the rights of all people, while never forgetting their privilege. But at its worst… things can get pretty nasty with allegiances drawn in the sand.

A Lead Balloon

A Super post by the author reading "The worst is when white gun enthusiasts talk to me about police murdering blacks." The text is superimposed over the names and photos of black people murdered by police.

It began innocently enough: I made a Super about how annoying it is when white gun owners give me their opinions on the preponderance of black violent death. We live in an era where black children are killed sitting on swing sets with toy guns, while white “gun activists” parade around Target with real guns in an outrageous display of power and privilege. It is a horrific and deadly double standard. Well … somebody on Super didn’t like hearing about that, and when I dropped the knowledge that white people aren’t allowed to police black people’s thoughts on racism, it went over like a lead balloon.

The thread descended into petty squabbling with another Super user… let’s call him Mr. Derailment. He approached me first. I hadn’t asked for his thoughts. But he was very determined to ask pointed questions, without stopping to think for a second that what he was doing was unsolicited, un-called for and unwanted. (There goes that arrogance of privilege again). Yet there was Mr. Derailment, claiming I “bullied” him because I told him he wasn’t allowed to police my thoughts on race. (This was after he wrote a long and pointed rant about me, because I dared to not want to discuss my thoughts with a white man.)

When the Baltimore uprising began following the brutal murder of Freddie Gray, #BlackLivesMatter trended on Super mostly because I and a few others refused to stop talking about it. 

I live right outside of Washington, D.C., and a movement I am heavily invested in was hitting very close to home. That’s the brilliant thing about a new app… there’s plenty of opportunity to get real momentum on an idea, because the community is still small.

Eventually, a few more brave souls joined the conversation on Super. I didn’t realize that #BlackLivesMatter was considered controversial by some people, but now is a good time to say, Super is pretty white. There’s also an Asian presence on the app. But sadly I don’t feel there’s a lot of people that legitimately understand why #BlackLivesMatter exists at all, which doesn’t say much for the general awareness of some of the popular users on an empathy app.

So there we were conversing politely and all of a sudden … toot toot, all aboard the derailment train! Mr. Derailment shows up to let people know that Martin Luther King would be appalled by the riots. I quickly reminded him that Martin Luther King would most likely be more appalled by the fact that fifty years after his death, black lives still hold less value in America than white ones. The conversation descended into more quarreling. Messy. But the worst part was that later he demanded I contact him offline so we could duke it out “like adults.” His demand was both creepy and controlling.

Sadly, the posts which rose to the top of Super’s Popular stream that day were those decrying the movement and loudly declaring that … (wait for it) … all lives matter. That old trope? I spent the rest of the week explaining how “all lives matter” wasn’t helpful and very problematic. I had somehow forgotten that there are people who aren’t aware of white privilege, because I have a magnificent group of socially aware friends. But one of the things that’s become more and more apparent to me is that people who have never examined their privilege are completely foreign to the concept. They simply don’t believe it even exists. A portion of the Super community also doesn’t understand that when it comes to things you haven’t experienced (ie: racism), it’s good protocol to turn on your listening ears and take a seat.

A Super post that reads "It's good to remember that no one owes you an explanation of anything." It is signed Aja and has a colorful, rainbow mouth in the background.

There are some people who will never listen to the message, as one apt user, DuggyLimes, pointed out to me. But through it all, two people came to understood what I was saying, having never considered it before. Of all my years on Twitter, I’ve never experienced that sort of breakthrough in discourse. People either get it immediately or they don’t, and they absolutely refuse to listen. So those interactions felt like small successes. But, it gets tiring explaining these things again and again. Unfortunately, you have to step outside of yourself and examine your privilege to get it, and some people will never take that step.

Building Better Communities

Whether you love or hate social media, it has played a strong role in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. If you are familiar with The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, then you know very well that violent black death in America is as old as the country itself. Once upon a time it was called “lynching”. The message that “we are not safe here” was passed by word of mouth. After finishing the book, I asked my parents and sure enough … both of them knew someone whose life was ended abruptly and mysteriously in their youth. Today, it is called “police shooting”. We no longer rely on word of mouth. I go straight to social media. Every single racially motivated murder which has happened in the last few years, I heard about first on Twitter, well before mainstream news caught up with the hashtag.

While today Twitter is one of the biggest platforms for social justice organization online, it’s important that these movements can spread on emerging platforms as well. The biggest problem I’ve encountered is that with every beta community of a new app, there’s a sense of tribalism that isn’t always healthy for constructive dialog. There are certain users that feel a bit drunk with power, because they feel a sense of ownership of the space (which includes their space and yours). The only thing that will break up the group-think is the addition of new members with new ideas.

Adding minority voices to an app might just be the most challenging hurdle of all. But if I were in Super’s position, instead of just taking the traditional route of making rounds to SXSW, I would actively seek out minority users. I would pack up the team and visit alternative festivals like Afro Punk in Atlanta, GA. I also believe that in order for Super to be a safe space for women and minorities, we need to have more control over our settings and who has the ability to access us. (There is a block button in the works!)

I recognize a lot of these things are further down the road. But I for one cannot wait to see this community grow and diversify because as cynical as I am, I believe in Super. If I was able to reach just two people that had never understood why All Lives Matter is “derailing” and what “derailing” is, I feel like I’ve achieved something. 
Despite all the negativity which erupted when I began to talk about race, I’m still having fun. Super is a wonderful way to spread ideas and illustrate your life, and I can’t wait for more people to join because I’ve already made some wonderful friends. One popular user DanielCardoza actually made a post thanking me for the race dialogue and reminding others that they should “try to listen, even if it’s hard”.

A super post tagged BlackLivesMatter, with the words "I appreciate Aja bringing some real talk to Super today. Friends, try to listen, even if it's hard."

To Super’s credit, their staff was very proactive with the way they handled my concerns about some of the pushback I received for challenging the community to speak about race. One of the suggestions I made was implemented, to my absolute surprise! Whoa. After years of seeing my friends hounded on other social media platforms by trolls, only to fill out a form which yields zero results, Super is an excellent change of pace. Concerns are answered swiftly and appropriately, which is no small feat for a seven-person staff. Mad props dudes. But as I’ve just said “dudes”, I’ve also discussed with the Super staff that diversifying the app means diversifying their staff. Because you can’t make an app about empathy without women and people of color. They’re listening, and they intend on making good on that.

At the end of the day, the fact that I check Super first thing in the morning is a tell-tale sign that I am clearly enjoying it. But it needs more voices. Particularly those of people of color, the LGBT community and feminists. So don’t leave me hanging folks! This is a magnificent tool, and it would be a real shame if we didn’t use it.