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Twitter: More Educational Than You Thought
July 19, 2014 10:37 AM   Subscribe

The Race Swap Experiment What happens when a black woman uses a white male avatar on Twitter? Something a lot more positive than what usually happens for her when she uses a picture of herself.
PJ: Part of the experiment was also white writers, like white male writers, using avatars of women or people of color, right?

MK: Right. And so there were a couple of people I know of who switched over, at least one of whom I think said they lasted about 2 hours.
Original Audio
posted by Michele in California (39 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
They should try wearing a turban in their avatar picture. By which I mean, wow, what a co-incidence.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:48 AM on July 19 [5 favorites]


I don't think that turban thing works like it used to.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:08 AM on July 19 [20 favorites]


This is sort of like how some of my friends legally changed their last names to bolster their employment prospects, or to increase their patient base (as physicians). It indeed made a huge difference-- good for them! But I kinda found it depressing that being taken seriously came at the expense of having to shed their identity.

More people who are in such positions of privilege should try this out. I think taking the proverbial walk in their shoes would reduce the frequency with which the privileged dismiss or minimize the experiences that PoC put up with every day. Of course, it's different to simply try on a new identity and still have the freedom to change out of it at at will... but it's a start...
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:12 AM on July 19 [8 favorites]


I have two accounts on a different, Spanish language news aggregator site. One has a female avatar and the other a male name and avatar. I used to get downvotes when I wrote feministy things with the female account all the time. It barely happens with the male account, even when I'm picking fights with MRAs. It's unbelievable.

Eventually I expect someone will think the male account is either a gay or trans dude, but nobody's asked me yet.
posted by sukeban at 11:13 AM on July 19 [13 favorites]


This is why I like to hang out on African twitter as well. Its a whole new way to snark. Its harder gender wise because its lot like the early days of the 1990s interwebs but experience and age helps.
posted by infini at 11:14 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


my avatar has been a cat, a couple of candles, a cup of coffee and now is a bowl of cereal.

I don't get any trolling - or many responses, positive or negative - but I get a lot of food ads.
posted by jb at 11:18 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]


I wish I found this surprising. But good on her for running the experiment and for continuing to speak up as herself.
posted by GrammarMoses at 11:19 AM on July 19


My twitter avatar is also cats.

I'm not sure I understand what sort of conversations these people were engaging in, though. Twitter isn't really a good place to have a discussion, and most of the people who I follow are people I know from Facebook or other social media platforms, so I know what they look like.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:25 AM on July 19


I don't think that turban thing works like it used to.

Thanks, 9/11!
posted by Renoroc at 11:35 AM on July 19


The novel Ready Player One (Amazon|Audible) by Ernest Cline, published in 2011 features a fit, white male avatar (in a world where almost all interaction is in a large, World of Warcraft-like internet zone so the avatar is often the only way most people ever know you) that turns out to be a notably less fit black female. Having recently re-read the book, I realized that they actually dealt with this specific issue directly, and the reaction of the main character was telling.

Of course, the book is also a video game nerd's dream, full of endless nostalgia, which alone is enough reason to check it out.
posted by mystyk at 11:38 AM on July 19 [15 favorites]


Eventually I expect someone will think the male account is either a gay or trans dude, but nobody's asked me yet.

I always keep my avatar ambiguous, same with my name, and avoid filling out the gender field if I can.

The number if times I've been referred to with feminine pronouns or called sexist slurs that are generally directed at women is really, really high.

And it's only when I say feministy things, yea.

So is it like, I'd only believe women are more than 3/5ths of a person if I was one or something? I still wanna get their logic.
posted by emptythought at 12:20 PM on July 19


I like this idea as the basis for a classroom exercise for freshmen undergrads ( for gender as well as race) but I'm not sure how to instruct them to interact on Twitter, especially if their account has few followers
posted by Bwithh at 12:35 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Maybe we should all use black woman avatars until the whole thing is subverted.
posted by Segundus at 12:44 PM on July 19 [12 favorites]


I have pretty mixed feelings about the predominance of avatars on social media, and increasingly, on news sites.

I never ever use a picture of myself as an avatar on social media accounts, but have been encouraged to do so when writing online. While professional-looking bio pages may be good for touting credentials or humanizing writers or building audiences, they also open writers up for a world of hurt. Rather than responding to the content of an article, trolls inevitably head for the bio in the hope of making an ad hominem attack or tracking down more info about the writer.

The end result, particularly for female writers, is stalking and harassment, and not just in the "someone was a jerk on the internet" sense. People will try to find your phone number and home address, and they will threaten to harm you. Earlier this week, a former coworker of mine ended up having to call the cops after receiving rape and death threats from a self-proclaimed men's rights activist.

I'd much rather remain a byline, or, better, a user name. Or a barcode. Or an inscrutable string of numbers.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:08 PM on July 19 [22 favorites]


This is sort of like how some of my friends legally changed their last names to bolster their employment prospects, or to increase their patient base (as physicians). It indeed made a huge difference-- good for them! But I kinda found it depressing that being taken seriously came at the expense of having to shed their identity.
=============
"Foreign sounding names may be overlooked due to a perception that their English language skills may be insufficient on the job."
=============

Sometimes I wonder if my life would be different had I taken the advice to change my name (first and last) to something not so obviously ethnic. I tend to think... No? I am an immigrant and speak English awkwardly; the ethnic name kind of reflects my language skills.

It's incredibly unfair to presume that all candidates with ethnic-sounding names have subpar language skills, though.
posted by fatehunter at 1:11 PM on July 19


I like this idea as the basis for a classroom exercise for freshmen undergrads ( for gender as well as race) but I'm not sure how to instruct them to interact on Twitter, especially if their account has few followers
I have about 170 followers, most of whom are people I know IRL or online or people who are involved in stuff that I'm involved in, and I haven't noticed any difference at all when I have a gender-neutral avatar or a gender-revealing one. I'm white, and it definitely could be different if I were a person of color, but my hunch is that this is really an issue for people with a public presence, not for people who use Twitter more like the way they use Facebook.

Having said that, way back in the late 90s I chose an Arabic name for my first AOL handle (it was the name of a character in a book I was reading), and wow did I get a different reaction in AOL chat when I changed my handle to something that didn't make people assume I was Muslim and/or black. It was kind of an eye-opener for me.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:32 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Every morning Mikki wakes up, opens her phone, looks at Twitter, and just sees tweet after tweet of personal invective and vitriol hurled at her. This isn't "you're an idiot" or "I disagree with your ideas," these are death threats and rape threats and threats against her family from people who just disagree with things she's written online.

Yikes. I had no idea it could be that bad. Even on the internet, people keep finding ways to make someone's race a problem, even when the only indicator is a tiny little picture. Are we ever going to be free of racism?
posted by JHarris at 1:40 PM on July 19


It's incredibly unfair to presume that all candidates with ethnic-sounding names have subpar language skills, though.

I've been mistaken for a middle aged Midwestern male back when I used to blog regularly, but without a byline, on my blog. I am "ethnic" though that word implies that Caucasian is not an ethnicity in the same way the rest of the planet is
posted by infini at 1:41 PM on July 19


I wrote about having to have a second trimester abortion procedure and I wound up with a real stalker. And the pro-life, the far fringe pro-life crowd really harassing me, so I don't live where I used to live, and my last name on the bell and on the phone and things is not the last name that I write under. We moved not only back to Chicago, but very specifically into dense urban areas, because when you live in the inner city the chances of a white guy who wants to come shoot at you 'cause you talk about abortion drop.
And is that stalker in jail?
posted by spiderskull at 1:48 PM on July 19


Job-Hunters With "Ethnic" Names Face Pressure To Conform
Throughout Shuki Khalili’s career, he suspected his name might be holding him back. When he worked for a Wall Street headhunter, he felt potential clients would blow him off when they heard his name. When he started his own business selling greeting cards, phones sales were initially a bust at first.

“I tried using an American name, ‘Andrew Warner,’ and suddenly I could at least engage them in conversation and sell them some ads so I could build my business,” he said. He now goes by Andrew Warner and runs a successful entrepreneurial resource site called Mixergy.com in Santa Monica, Calif.
His About Page

See also:

Rita Hayworth who changed her name and hair color to "attract a greater range of roles."

Ricky Martin who Anglicized his name and, I think, cut his long hair to help break into the English-speaking/American market.

I remember seeing a movie about Ritchie Valens and there was a scene that dealt with him being asked to go with Valens instead of Valenzuela to get his big break musically. In the scene, the white male talking to him told him what he had changed his name from to try to assure him it was just a Hollywood thing and not racism.

I used to use my first name and last name when I was first online. They are both uncommon names and the combo is very uncommon. I began going by Michele in part because it is more common. My last name is an Anglicized French name which sounds like linguistic "gibberish" to people in that it does not look like a "real word"/"real name" (the way Smith is a real word referring to a type of work that the person's ancestors likely held). It is routinely misspelled (to look like it sounds) or mispronounced (to sound like a common name one letter different).

So I always sort of wonder if the "change your name to get better career success" thing isn't simply racism but is, perhaps, instead a matter of "I don't know how to pronounce that or spell that and it is too much cognitive load and what if I offend them and ...gah!, I think I will call Joe, where I don't have to wonder about all this other stuff, whose name I can pronounce and whom I know I am not going to offend etc." So if you go by Joe (or similar), they don't have to wonder all those things upfront, before so much as dealing with you as a person.

I know that after I returned to more active participation on Hacker News, I decided to write an explanation of my handle because it happens to sound like an in-your-face feminist handle but that was not at all the intent when I signed up. I then put the link to the explanation in my profile. And I am getting a lot less shit these days on Hacker News. I don't think that's the only reason but I do think it matters that I have made it clear that I am not some strident feminist in there to mix it up with the boys, attack them, etc.
posted by Michele in California at 1:49 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


I always sort of wonder if the "change your name to get better career success" thing isn't simply racism but is, perhaps, instead a matter of "I don't know how to pronounce that or spell that and it is too much cognitive load and what if I offend them and ...gah!, I think I will call Joe, where I don't have to wonder about all this other stuff, whose name I can pronounce and whom I know I am not going to offend etc." So if you go by Joe (or similar), they don't have to wonder all those things upfront, before so much as dealing with you as a person.

I don't think that's it. I have a hard-to-pronounce (or spell, if you hear it spoken) Italian name, and I've never had trouble getting callbacks when sending out resumes.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 1:58 PM on July 19


Italian is European and for many people that is viewed as "white" and not "some ethnicity where I am likely to step in it really badly."

I am not really talking about "that's just too hard to pronounce." I am talking about "And if I mispronounce it, will this person turn it into a huge scene, accuse me of racism, etc?" As far as I know, currently, Italian is not some hot button race where there is lots of white-vs-Italian conflict or the like. So perhaps people are not sure how to say it but aren't worried this will blow up in their face if they make a mistake.
posted by Michele in California at 2:12 PM on July 19


And before this turns into a shitshow, let me add that I am not saying there is no element of racism. I just wonder if there are other factors as well which are, perhaps, more motivationally neutral.

I wonder how such things work because there are strong parallels between racism and sexism. In fact, historically in the U.S., women's rights and civil rights groups often teamed up. I find that wondering how things work in terms of effectively overcoming or getting around racism is useful as a woman in thinking through the problem space of sexism minus the issue of sexuality per se.
posted by Michele in California at 2:24 PM on July 19


The author of the Medieval People of Color tumblr has commented on this as well.

Fun fact: changing my avatar image back to “male” cut the hatemail I receive by about two-thirds. Also, having a “female” avatar led a lot of people to make some serious assumptions about my gender. Mostly based on the cultural expectation that no man would ever willingly accept being perceived as a woman without having the biggest tantrum ever witnessed by humanity. 90% of the hate is based on who or what they think I am, rather than who I actually am. Some mysteries are better left intact, even when they’re not really mysteries at all
posted by metaphorever at 2:57 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


I experienced a "whoa, you're a girl?" moment here on Metafilter after I'd said something referring to my gender. My username is obviously not gendered, and for a long time my profile photo was a Stormtrooper stealing a french fry.

Fortunately, Mefi being a haven in the wilderness, I haven't noticed any difference in how I've been treated since then.
posted by cmyk at 3:31 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]


I've been mildly curious how many people tuned into this dude because of his "cool Asian guy" nom de plume, but I might be looking at this all wrong.
posted by psoas at 3:33 PM on July 19


I wouldn't consider "And if I mispronounce it, will this person turn it into a huge scene, accuse me of racism, etc?" to be motivationally neutral.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if the person making the judgment call is doing so because of something other than straight up bias. The repercussions are the same.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:34 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


There's been a study about the effects of names when jobhunting in Australia - by and large the Anglo names got most of the callbacks compared to non-Anglo names with the exact same resume.

I've thought about pulling a Rita Hayworth but I'm not sure if that'd ever really make a difference. Also I'd have to change 3 countries' worth of ID.
posted by divabat at 4:03 PM on July 19


This is why my avatar is a sloth. I get no guff and can pay homage to my spirit animal at the same time.
posted by snwod at 4:44 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Mikki is @Karnythia on Twitter and she is very much worth following. I believe the friend she refers to here is @thewayoftheid, similarly awesome and currently using a photo of Guy Fieri on the beach as her avatar. :)
posted by heatherann at 6:26 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Reading this article confirmed for me that my decision not to reveal my face on social media has been a correct one. I have had people go from flirty, friendly and open to permanently incommunicado based solely upon receiving a picture of me (it wasn't anything bizarre either - just a head shot). While people either lack opinions on how I look or have created their own image of me in their heads, however, they are willing to interact with me and give thought to the things that I have to say.
posted by koucha at 7:11 PM on July 19


For the record, if I received a resume from Guy Fieri on the beach, I would pass on that applicant.

I don't know how I'd be able to discern the beach part. Maybe it's a hard copy that's stained with both sand and donkey sauce?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 8:49 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


From Ernest Cline's Ready Player One

Her mother, Marie, worked from home, in an online data-processing center. In Marie’s opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to both women and people of color. From the very start, Marie had used a white male avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given.
When Aech first logged into the OASIS, she followed her mother’s advice and created a Caucasian male avatar.

posted by yoHighness at 3:48 AM on July 20


I am talking about "And if I mispronounce it, will this person turn it into a huge scene, accuse me of racism, etc?"

Wow, so it's the minority person's fault for making life difficult and making a "scene" because racism exists? Also, Italian used to be a "hot button race" in the very recent past. One of the reasons Italian names themselves have become more recognizable to the mainstream American culture is because of some Italians' refusal to Anglicize their names. That in itself is a specific cultural/political statement.
posted by sweetkid at 9:51 AM on July 20 [3 favorites]


Uzo Aduba (of Orange Is The New Black) makes a great point about names:
Did you ever consider changing your name?

“ When I started as an actor? No, and I'll tell you why. I had already gone through that. My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means "The road is good." Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, "Why?" I said, "Nobody can pronounce it." Without missing a beat, she said, "If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka. ”
posted by divabat at 1:40 PM on July 20 [15 favorites]


You can't control what people get anxious about, but I have never once had someone go off on me for getting their name wrong, and I am in situations where I deal with unfamiliar names fairly often. If you make a good-faith effort to get it right as quickly as possible, I think the chances of someone "making a scene" are slim to none. If people are anxious about that, I think it reflects their hangups, not a realistic fear. Also, that's not an issue on twitter, which is where this harassment is taking place.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:00 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]


I have a difficult last name, and am not white but have never "made a scene" when someone made a good faith effort. I have been known to roll my eyes when people call me "Sweetkid OhMyGodImNotEvenGonnaTRYThis" but rolled eyes also do not a scene make.
posted by sweetkid at 3:07 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


I've been mistaken for a middle aged Midwestern male back when I used to blog regularly, but without a byline, on my blog. I am "ethnic" though that word implies that Caucasian is not an ethnicity in the same way the rest of the planet is

Some years ago, after I first discovered the term people were using to identify this sort of thing ("the unmarked state") and had a hook to hang the concept on, I started seeing it everywhere--from supermarkets ("ethnic food") to bookstores (it's "fiction" unless there are cowboys and/or spaceships and/or it's mostly about two people falling in love and/or getting busy with each other) to news ("the suspect, [a|an] $ethnicity male" but rarely "the suspect, a white male").

Sometimes it's just annoying, but frequently it's pernicious.
posted by johnofjack at 8:41 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


Oops. Unmarked case, rather. And that explains why search results were so sparse.
posted by johnofjack at 9:01 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


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