Responding to Racist Tweets

18 Oct

I was hanging out in the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center the other day, keeping an eye on my Tweetdeck updates when a #UIC notification popped up that particularly caught my eye. Not in a hey-that-was-cool kind of caught my eye, but it was a I-can’t-believe-someone-at-UIC-tweeted-that kind of way. The offending tweet went like this: “Too many #Chinese on #uic campus.” So, clearly a racist statement, and I had to go into the usual deliberations of Too Respond v. Not Too Respond.

The thoughts going through my head looked something like: I can’t just see a racist tweet like that and not respond. Wait… how many people really look at the #UIC hashtag anyway? Someone should stand up and call out racism. Hold on… I am a campus minister here, so could that affect my position with complex power dynamics? Do Twitter conversations ever end in more understanding? And yet, what if a Chinese student saw that tweet? Am I not a pastor for Chinese students also? Yes, yes I am. A good pastor stands up for all students when something hurtful is said or tweeted. A good pastor speaks truth to ignorance whether it comes from power or from one disenfranchised group to another.

So here’s what the most of the interaction looked like:

(insert image of Twitter conversation here “twitter conversation on race.jpg”)

Let’s analyze the issues tweet by tweet from this student. She claimed that she did not mean for the comment to be racist. Perhaps she hoped that if her intentions were not racist, that would mean the comment was not racist either. Let’s be clear about this, intentions mean little to nothing when a hurtful comment is tweeted, especially when you cannot also explain what you really meant along with a tweet. The hurt is done, and the hurt is real whether or not you meant it. Let’s assume the student honestly did not know that the words “too many” carried a negative value judgment, just as a child might not yet have learned the meaning of the word “horrible.” The child read the word once without understanding the meaning, and they declared, “Mom, your cooking is horrible.” It does not matter that the child used the word with neutral intentions, just to say the word. The harm was done anyway. The mom would seek to correct the misuse of the word anyway, so that the child would know to only use that word in negative value judgments after that.

What about the next claim of simply stating a neutral statistic? We assume that all statistics are neutral (let’s ignore blatantly false statistics such as, “97% of Planned Parenthood’s activities are abortions,” because that is another conversation.) The statement was clearly not a statistic. The statement was a negative value-filled judgment implying that the presence of as many Chinese students that were on the campus was inherently negative. A simple statistics statement would look like <a href=” “>this</a>, “One quarter of UIC undergraduate students identify themselves as Asian American.” We see no suggestion that 25% is a good or a bad thing, it just is. To say there is “too many” of something, however, makes a clear value-statement, a judgment that 25% is not a good thing, that it would be better if it were 20% or even 10%. Here’s an analogy to help: “There are 25 boxes on the ground.” No value judgment there yet, not positive or negative yet. Here is where a value judgment comes in: There are too many boxes to carry. This implies you cannot carry all the boxes. In order to carry the boxes, there needs to be fewer boxes. Some boxes should leave.

So then how might the Chinese students feel when they read a statement such as this? Might they wonder, am I in the extra 5%? Are there too many of people like me at UIC? Should I leave? How many other students think that I should not be here? I also wonder if this student can tell the difference between Chinese and Korean, or Japanese, or Taiwanese, or Vietnamese students. Korean students might also appropriately wonder, “Do they think there are too many students like me also?” Am I not good enough to be here? Why is it a bad thing that I am here? Can this student not handle me here? Are other students uncomfortable around me because I am Asian?

I write this article because I am a pastor to all Asian students, and all Latina/o students, and all African students, and all immigrant students; because I don’t want anyone to say, “There are too many Italians on UIC campus,” either. I write this in case one of those students is reading so that they know that someone on campus is glad they are here. I write so they know that someone thinks they offer something valuable to this campus because, not despite, the fact they are different. Also, I write this because when I mentioned it to Karen Su, she immediately suggested I put something on the AARC blog. I write this so that I will not be the only one to challenge a racist tweet next time on the #UIC hashtag. As an LGBTQQI straight ally, I learned how important it is for allies to stand up to bullies when they say hurtful things. Usually, a bully is looking for a high-five or an lol. When they receive a challenge instead, they think twice the next time they consider tweeting something hurtful. Even if a student did not mean to be a bully, the response should have been, “Oh, that’s totally not what I meant to say! I got confused. I meant to say, it’s interesting and nice that this UIC campus is so diverse!”

So, the next day I called for a campaign at the #UIC hashtag that included a #CelebrateDiversity hashtag and statements from all around about how much people appreciate the diversity of the UIC campus.


Rev. Kurt Esslinger is Director and Campus Minister of Agape House Christian Ministry on the campus of the University of Illinois in Chicago. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and Agape House was his first call in the fall of 2009. Agape is an ecumenical campus ministry that began in the 60′s when UIC resided at Navy Pier in Chicago. He received his M. Div. at McCormick Theological Seminary and his BA in Classics at Austin College in Sherman, TX. During seminary, he spent one year studying at Hanshin Univeristy in Seoul, Korea. Before seminary, he spent one year as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Burnley, England.

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