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How online reaction to Charlotte’s women’s march triggered a discussion of race

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Jasmine Hines describes the digital divide in an especially painful way. It’s evidence of continued racism and white supremacy in Charlotte.

She makes this observation as one of two leaders of a group of women coming together  in September to embark on a seven-month exploration of white privilege and its impact on community. Hines is a leadership consultant with a master’s degree in organizational development, and former student of Karen Geiger, a consultant in leadership development.

Geiger and Hines concluded the course was needed after an unexpected realization by organizers of the Charlotte Women’s March: African-American women didn’t march on Jan. 20, 2018 because they didn’t believe the event represented them.

“It was a small group of women organizing the march for all women, and yet our community is much larger and broader than that,” Hines said. “This isn’t the same Charlotte of 30 years ago. I actually decided not to participate in the march because I saw who was included, I saw the organizers, and saw the things that were posted in advertising the march. It was clear that it wasn’t for me.”

Most of the dialogue on this conflict took place online, in comments sections following a Feb. 26 essay in Qcitymetro, and in Facebook discussions linking to the piece. Written by march organizers, it was titled “Can we talk? Let’s bridge the racial divides that separate women in Charlotte.” Black women found the essay condescending, lacking in self-awareness, and ignorant of history and issues of white privilege. Black people don’t owe white women an education, commenters wrote.

After the essay, Geiger met with march organizers, who viewed response to the essay as motivation to learn. Geiger and Hines set up a course with monthly issues, readings, and discussion topics.

“If you specifically Google ‘white women’s curriculum on racism’, there are about a hundred different resources that you can just delve right into,” Hines said. “If you can learn how to build a brewery, you can figure out racism.”

Off the top of her head, Hines can list several low-cost educational initiatives on race in North Carolina. In Charlotte, Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, seminars offered through Amplify and Activate, and free Facebook webinars. In Greensboro, the Race Equity Institute. From Boston to San Francisco, Geiger said, universities and organizations are offering programs that examine white privilege.

Online discussion of racial division in Charlotte is a symptom of deeper problems, they said. Geiger’s dissertation focused on how white and black women navigate race as they work for social justice.

“Speaking across belief differences is a national issue right now,” Geiger said. “We have political differences, racial differences, class differences, gender differences, you name it. We have to get better at questioning and being curious and respecting the fact that someone’s point of view is shaped by their place in the system of privilege.”

Online discussions create both tension and opportunity. Discomfort can be a positive tool for understanding and change, Geiger said.

“What I think social media does, which I learned in my doctoral work, is that sometimes it’s useful to read something that’s very uncomfortable in the privacy of your own home where you can have your discomfort and manage it and explore it personally,” Geiger said. “If you’re with other people, then you have to put on your face and respond in some way that might not be authentic or might be defensive. But this way you can read it and digest it yourself and I think that’s very useful.

“What I would worry about with online information is that if you talk only to people who agree with you, you’re just going to feed your pre-existing beliefs…. I love social media for triggering us, but then we have to process the triggers productively.

“We don’t ask questions on social media, we put out statements,” Geiger said. “It’s like we like being on two sides. It’s almost a sports mentality where we like to be on the winning team and not on the losing team, or something, and there’s not a lot of dialogue across those lines.”

Online media provides a great place to hide, Hines said.

“People get emboldened to say things that they couldn’t say in person,” Hines said. “There is a divide. Cyberspace creates this divide of human connection which I think the system as a whole does that. White supremacism and racism creates, it’s intended to divide and conquer, and social media, the digital divide is an extension of that.”

Multiple sources support Hines’ assertion. FCC data indicates that Charlotte neighborhoods with higher minority populations are two to four times less likely to have access to high-speed broadband internet. Recent reporting by student journalists in Queens University’s James L. Knight School of Communication indicates that both for-profit and non-profit organizations publicize low-cost broadband internet subscription programs poorly, or not at all.

It’s an oversimplification to view women’s issues as uniform, transcending issues of race and class, Geiger said. For Geiger, white privilege is an academic subject. For Hines, it’s family survival.

“It’s a matter of passing on to my daughter and her daughters or sons what the world can be, and that she can thrive in it without the harms that I’ve suffered or my ancestors have suffered,” Hines said. “So if I can make any kind of shift for her and for others moving forward, I want to be a part of that.”

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