Unpacking the Backpack: Privilege in Online Spaces

I’ve been aware of Peggy McIntosh’s writing on white privilege and the invisible backpack for several years now, and as someone who benefits daily from white privilege, I found it to be an eye-opening to gain an understanding of how exactly I’m benefitting from that privilege. Her writing includes a list of “daily effects of white privilege”; essentially, a list of conditions that many people (i.e. white people) take for granted that don’t also apply to people of colour. These conditions include “I can go shopping and feel assured I will not be followed or harassed” and “I can easily buy posters, picture books and dolls featuring people of my race”.

Sania Hameed and Akeisha Lari recently developed their own version of the Privilege Backpack to “think about the different ways that privileges manifest within higher education institutions and student affairs broadly”. Reading through their non-exhaustive list of 60 items (yup!), there were several that gave me pause. But one stopped me in my tracks completely:

I am not worried that my lack of a social media presence (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) impacts my professional opportunities. 

I read this list at the end of my first full week of grad school classes; a week in which we had been encouraged to set up a Twitter account, had guest speakers talk about the value of social media in creating a personal learning network (PLN), and read articles about online harassment of women scholars. So this line led to a kind of “oh, crap” moment. 

Through the framing of the online harassment article we read this week… it’s a privilege to be able to post and share your opinions online freely, without negative consequences, unwarranted backlash, or outright harassment. (i.e. without the threat of being doxxed or threatened with rape and murder). And this privilege is often granted to groups who are already benefitting from privilege (white privilege, male privilege, cis-hetero privilege, etc.). For people who avoid being on social media, or who have left social media, due to those threats… what’s the larger impact on their career? Are they missing opportunities? Is it holding them back? Based on my experience with social media, and the network it’s given me, and the opportunities that have arisen from that network, I would have to say the answer is yes, or at the very least it’s quite possible.

At this point in society, we can’t exactly remove the opportunity that is social media, and I honestly don’t think I’d want to. It’s also seems pretty unlikely that online harassment is just going to up and disappear someday (wouldn’t that be nice?). So, how do we work to negate the privilege and even the playing field? What can we do?

Counterbalancing privilege

One of the things that stood out to me as I read through the Privilege Backpack was how some things were quite systemic and would take a lot of work to change (i.e. “I can travel across campus at night most of the time, without worrying about being followed or harassed.”), while others stood out as things that might not be as difficult to change, at least on an individual level (i.e. “Our curricular materials acknowledge and positively showcase people who share aspects of my identity.”). For me, the social media item stood out as one we can immediately work to change.

Online harassment is one of the key contributors to social media as a privilege. While access is something to be considered, it is pretty widespread these days. Unfortunately, harassment can also be considered to be widespread, and actively keeps people off the platform. And unfortunately, harassment is typically distributed in a way that reinforces other types of privilege. Women are more likely to be harassed then men. People of colour are more likely to be harassed than white people. Trans folks are more likely to be harassed than cis folks. And the list goes on.

If online harassment is a key contributor to social media as a privilege, getting rid of harassment would be the answer, right? Now, if only that was a simple thing to do…

When George Veletsianos visited my EDCI 515 class earlier this week to talk about online harassment (and other things), he made an interesting analogy that I loved (my words, his point).

When we think about recycling, all of the responsibility is being put on the consumer, and none (or relatively little) on the manufacturer. It’s the consumers responsibility to sort their recycling, to ensure things get to the correct depot, to not screw it up. Why isn’t it the manufacturers job to deal with the trash their products are creating? It’s the same with social media. All the responsibility for dealing with harassment is being put on the user. Why isn’t it the social media companies’ job to deal with the trash their products are creating?

There are lots of things that social media platforms could d to reduce the incidence of harassment on their platforms- but these platforms are also widely known to take very little action on the topic, and often struggle to even uphold their own terms and conditions when it comes to harassment. There are frequently articles and stories being shared of folks reporting what seems to be very clear-cut harassment, very clear cut violations of policy, only for the platform to come back shrugging its shoulders and saying, “unfortunately, that doesn’t violate our policies.” Often, even when people ARE found to be in violation, the punishment is minimal. Twitter often bans people from the platform for a day or two, and then those people can later be found bragging about their banishment once they regain access. It’s simply not effective. And the companies simply don’t care.

Let’s be real. These companies, predominantly created and run by white men, are benefitting from this privilege. They are benefitting from ignoring the trash their products are creating. So, in our capitalistic world, why should they lift a finger?

If the tech companies are unlikely to address and solve this issue on our own, it’s up to us as individual users to try and make a difference and move the needle. Here are a few small suggestions for reducing or sharing the benefits that can come with the privilege of social media use.

  • Challenge the tech companies. Report harassment when you see it. Don’t make the folks being harassed do all the work- they have enough to deal with!
  • Try and be aware of who is and isn’t on social media. Awareness is an important step! (Relatedly… how diverse is your Twitter feed?)
  • When looking for people to fill opportunities, don’t just post on social media. Find other ways to reach people. Use your offline networks- and ask your online network to use their offline networks as well!
  • Share what you find on social media (opportunities, resources, articles, etc.) with folks you know are not on social media, especially when you think of them while reading it!
  • If you are in a position of great privilege (hi, white, cis males!), share the work and accomplishments of those who are not on social media because of previous or potential harassment (with permission, of course!). There’s an element of safety to be considered here, but the likelihood of a white male receiving backlash and threats for sharing research about, say, abortion is much less than that of a female of colour.  

I don’t have all the answers here, and I’m not even sure I’m the best person to be starting this conversation, but progress always has to start somewhere, right?

Featured image by Josiah Weiss on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

One thought on “Unpacking the Backpack: Privilege in Online Spaces

  1. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading through the multitude of ideas you express here. The Veletsianos quote you included really resonated with me as well. I also like that you included some practical suggestions at the end of your post.

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