Racism: The politics of calling out and online harassment — Emellia Shariff

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JUNE 4 — Most, if not all of us, have seen the series of Instagram Stories posted by the former national beauty queen. It is interesting to note how certain people are averse to describing her actions as racism. Instead, many described the former queen’s words as offensive, insensitive, ignorant, or inappropriate.

Sure, calling someone racist is a big accusation with even bigger social and legal ramifications. Maybe people wanted to be extra careful before throwing words like racism around, especially in Malaysia where we have been taught that racial issues are sensitive. Perhaps, there is virtue in refusing to morally label another person.

However, it is important to call out racism as it is. Describing her words as “distasteful” or “not cool” is problematic because you’re diluting the impact of her words. Eating your housemate’s food in the fridge without asking is “distasteful”. Taking the last piece of pizza when you’ve had the most slices is “not cool”. Her words are more than that.

I believe she had attacked black bodies and the #BlackLivesMatter movement by insinuating that their anger and protests are not justified. She diminished the oppression of black bodies into the “what doesn’t kill you make you stronger” narrative, like those songs that you would listen to when going through a bad breakup.

This level of attack should be called out, and calling out is important because it is a tool for the oppressed and their allies to highlight injustice. If you look at social justice campaigns all around the world, from the civil rights to the recent #MeToo movements, calling out is a paramount element which underpins every campaign. In theory, calling out is simple. You highlight someone’s bad behaviour, they stop doing it and become a better person.

Unfortunately, the realities of calling out are not so simple. If done wrong, it can be highly aggressive and divisive. And this is where calling out can become bullying or harassment. Let’s make one thing clear — bullying and harassment are never acceptable, be it online or offline, no matter who the intended recipient is.

Calling out is not to make yourself morally superior, nor is it to make the person feel so small to a point you cease treating this person like a human being. If your criticism against a person includes physical threats, sexual and gender slurs, or suggesting suicide, you are no longer calling out racism, you’re bullying.

Aside from that, it is important to identify why you’re calling out someone. Are you calling out because the beauty queen’s words conflict with your personal values, or are you just blindly joining in the bandwagon? When calling out, it’s important to do it with the right heart and not be selective. I hope that when people called out the beauty queen, it is because we are all united against racism, and will fight against racial inequality, discrimination and abuse of other oppressed bodies such as refugees and migrant workers in our own country with as much passion. Calling out should be about principle, not performance.

Let’s move on the next group of social media users: those who are calling out these bullies. This is heart-warming, but it highlights a different challenge that we face as a society — we don’t really know what constitutes bullying or harassment. To some people, merely using cuss words is already bullying, while others may use a higher threshold. Some people argued that the sheer volume of criticism directed at the former beauty queen would be enough to constitute harassment. But does it, really?

The lack of standalone legislation on issues like cyber bullying and sexual harassment means that we have very different understanding on what would constitute bullying or harassment. This makes it difficult for (responsible) social media users to police their online interactions. This also prevents substantive discourse on the actual issues, as it creates a situation where everyone just ends up calling out each other based on whatever they personally feel is right.

Properly calling out racism, as well as issues of cyber bullying and sexual harassment are all important. Those who want to call out racism should be constructive, and the same standards should be imposed to those calling out the bullies. But, how do we have all these conversations at the same time without eclipsing or cancelling the other out? Well, it starts with being able to have critical and productive dialogue online. But without clear standards and guidelines, it is hard for fruitful discussions to happen.

All this points to one thing — the government needs to get their house in order, sit in virtual parliament and pass the necessary legislations as soon as possible, because they are long due.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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