Critics accused the moderators of racism for lumping together white users with disparate opinions on issues like police violence and systemic racism, of shutting down debate, of retreating to “a giant echo chamber.” “Yeah, I get it, I’ll never understand what it’s like to be black,” wrote the user bobbymcprescott, “but removing a non-racist comment because I’m white is just childish.”
Supporters replied that it could be useful for white Reddit users to experience being rejected based on their skin color, and pointed to the thousands of black users celebrating the move as evidence that it filled a need. “Reddit is full of mostly white subreddits,” they wrote in a public post. “We have Black People Twitter.”
The importance of knowing someone’s race when the conversation is about race was not lost on me. I had asked all my sources their race by phone or text, because it was clearly relevant to the article. “Are you living this or are you just commenting on it?” as Mr. Moreno put it. I also understood that the appeal to democratic ideals by white Reddit users read to many black Reddit users as a particular flavor of what has been called “white fragility,” the trademark inability of white Americans to meaningfully own their unearned privilege. “You feel the entitlement that it’s your space, that you need to be the voice to tell the story,” said Tony Hinderman, a visually-verfied-by-me black Black People Twitter user, “when it’s really not your story.”
As a reporter who has written about forms of racism both subtle and less so over the past year, and as a sentient human being, I was under no illusion that we were living in a post-racial society. Still, the mere act of asking for proof of someone’s race felt like a violation of a taboo I had internalized growing up and perhaps also in my time as a reporter covering the late 1990s internet. The techno-utopians of that era, the digital culture scholar Andre Brock of the Georgia Institute of Technology reminded me, held the dual beliefs that democracy thrives only when free speech is near-absolute and that internet-enabled anonymity would strip away the biases, racial and otherwise, impeding that freedom. It’s possible I had come closer than I would like to admit to having been one of them.
For now, though, we have an internet where white people, sometimes posing as black people, can actively sow racial division, and a democracy, according to a recent Pew Research study, in which black and white adults have widely different perceptions about the fairness with which black Americans are treated.
“A lot of colorblind ideology has been manifested online,” Dr. Brock said. “But it ignores the powerful role that whiteness has in shaping everyday existence in this country.”
Reddit, researchers of the online ecosystem say, may come the closest of mainstream social media to approximating the vision of the early internet. The user Sailor_callisto said pseudonyms had eased her communication with other law students studying for the bar exam last year. In a law school subreddit, “people were honest and open and vulnerable,” she said, “whereas all my friends made it sound like ‘I’m totally not struggling.’” Connecting with strangers who share her interests is easier on Reddit than on Facebook and Instagram, she said, and she appreciates the absence of visuals: “You don’t have to be this ‘perfect person.’”