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Viral Hate Videos Are a Person of Colour’s Reality

Violent, racist clips are the new normal on my social media feed and have changed the way I look at the world.

by Sarah Hagi
06 June 2017, 11:30pm

Source photo. Shutterstock. Art by. Noel Ransome

This originally appeared on VICE CA.

It feels like every couple of weeks, my social media feed goes through a cycle. Usually taking place at a line-up in a grocery store, a video is recorded of someone yelling racist bile at an innocent person trying to go about their day. Sometimes, the videos are recorded by the victims themselves, other times the videos are recorded by silent bystanders. While each video is unique in its horror (it seems like no two acts of hate are exactly alike) they all remind me of the same thing, "this can happen to anyone at any time."

These violent clips have become more or less the new normal to me in the last few years. They autoplay without sound, and I don't even have to turn the volume up to get the gist of what's being said. I used to sometimes cry when they'd show up, but now their effect on me is less of an immediate reaction and more of a deep-seated fear that weaves itself into my everyday life. If an erratic-seeming person gets on a bus, I fear I'll be their target. If I'm waiting for a subway, I make it a point to stand as far away from the tracks as possible—little things like that. While it's normal for any woman to be afraid of being alone at night, the relatively few instances of snide comments directly related to my identity as a Muslim woman have left me more paranoid than I'd like to admit. Sometimes, when I do end up watching these videos I try and envision myself as the victim, but it took me a while to realize exactly why. It's not because I want to be the victim of a hate crime, but I always wonder what I'd do if I was. I never have an answer.

Last month in Portland, Oregon, two men were killed and one was seriously injured after defending two teenage girls from a hate crime. Based on a statement from one of the targets, a 16-year-old girl, the interaction wasn't all too different from what I see in my Twitter feed. Jeremy Joseph Christian yelled at the two girls allegedly saying things like, "Go back to your country." After the girls walked away from him, the three men intervened and two ended up dying after being stabbed by Christian. Shortly after the incident, in an emotional interview Destinee Mangum the 16-year-old target of hate speech said, "They lost their lives because of me and my friend." Even as an adult with ten years of life experience on this girl, I can't imagine feeling any other way. Just because she and her friend existed, two people died defending their humanity.

Though it was not recorded on camera, what happened in Portland affected me more than possibly any other of the number of viral hate crime videos I've seen online. With one of the worst possible scenarios unfolding, the videos reminded me of the question I frequently ask myself, "What the hell is supposed to happen?"

I don't know what I'd want someone to do if I was being harassed and I don't know what I'd do either. It's easy to imagine a situation in which I bravely stand up for myself, but I know I'd be paralyzed by fear. I wouldn't want someone to record my hate crime because that would be humiliating. Having someone intervene could escalate the situation, though there's no way of telling how or when. And although the tragedy that unfolded in Portland isn't a common occurrence, I would never want someone to get hurt on my behalf. Still, I know I shouldn't be the one to fix this situation.

Speaking to other people of colour, it seems like plenty are in the same boat when it comes to how we're supposed to feel in the wake of viral events. Micah Peters, a writer at The Ringer expressed similar uncertainty as to exactly what people of colour are supposed to feel when seeing them pop up on social media. While Peters told me he used to feel anger, his feelings have shifted. "I'd say it's primarily exhaustion. Not in having to figure out how to feel about it, but to have those feelings surface over and over again, and to have to explain them to other people, before you've even processed them yourself."

When I noticed a bigger influx in hate crime videos appearing in my social media feed, I mostly retweeted the videos with the idea that these videos are some form of proof of my own fears. By viewing the videos, we're being confronted with an unambiguous reality that's easy to forget. But again, that poses the question—why do we need to see these videos to believe what's happening?

Razzan Nakhlawi, a student at the University of Southern California feels similarly with all videos involving blatant violence against people of colour, especially videos of black people dying at the hand of police officers. "I understand the impact of the imagery. It's endlessly messed up that we need to witness a black person in their last moments of life, bleeding out, to convey a reality," he told me.

There's been plenty of online guides and literature on what people should do when seeing someone being harassed in a hate crime. In 2016, a guide created by a French illustrator went viral for demonstrating what bystanders should do in the event someone around them is being harassed. Essentially, the guide provides two main courses of action: to not interact with the attacker and to always respect the wishes of the victim. Of course, there's no way in knowing exactly how a situation will escalate, but it does make one thing clear—outrage and shock is meaningless unless we get serious about bystander training.

Following Brexit, the University of Ulster in Scotland suggested racist attacks (which have been on the rise since Brexit) happen because, "perpetrators may feel that they are acting 'with permission,' or 'with the sympathy of the wider community,' both spoken and unspoken." Activists have also long employed bystander intervention training in their own circles; one popular free online guide from the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition in Maryland provides various de-escalation techniques for different scenarios. Of course, these techniques will never work 100 percent of the time, but they do provide tools needed to diffuse a potentially violent situation.

Oftentimes, when seeing these videos I only feel powerlessness. I'm still not fully sure what I'm supposed to do as someone who could potentially find themselves as a target for hate.

We could never know whether or not what happened in Portland was avoidable, but what we do know is the suspect had shown many signs of what he was capable of. Reports show that Jeremy Joseph Christian had frequently participated in spewing hate speech online and participated in far right rallies.

The most recent viral video to appear on my social media feed featured a woman berating people at a Chinese supermarket for not speaking English. Using familiar lines, she told the employees to go back to China and, "If you're going to work here, it is the law to know English." Captured by a 15-year-old Frank Hong, he told CTV News others tried to diffuse the situation and he explained his reasoning for posting the video.

"I put this video out to show the world that racism and xenophobia and bigotry still exists in Canada, and we really need to work together to stop it." Hong wanted to show definitive proof of what so many of us fear to a wider audience.

Oftentimes, when seeing these videos I only feel powerlessness. I'm still not fully sure what I'm supposed to do as someone who could potentially find themselves as a target for hate. If anything is apparent to me, it's that people feel they can do this publicly because of some type of inaction in the part of the general public. Watching Hong's video left my timeline outraged with many of my white peers echoing Hong's statement of pointing out how this kind of stuff happens in Canada. But just like with every one of these videos, I understand the cycle means everyone will be upset and forget about the video in a couple days until the next one comes along.

Follow Sarah Hagi on Twitter.