There’s a famous quote from the United States Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart. When ruling on an obscenity case in Jacobellis v. Ohio, he expressed the view that Pornography is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
The same is true of racism in any form, but most particularly online racism. When people are removed from the realities of a situation or the realities of other people’s lives, backgrounds and feelings, their actions and reactions are sometimes completely in opposition to how they would be in real life. In defining and responding to Cyber-racism, we are faced with countless challenges stemming from how subjective it can be.
According to Humanrights.gov:
Racism can take many forms, such as jokes or comments that cause offence or hurt; name-calling or verbal abuse; harassment or intimidation, or public commentary that inflames hostility towards certain groups.
When racism takes place online it is known as cyber-racism. Cyber-racism can include words and images and may be communicated via websites, blogs and social networking sites, videos or email.
This is a very broad definition, but what it comes down to is that Cyber-racism is really any form of online expression that is negative or insulting to other traditions, races and backgrounds. It can be a meme, or a pun in a comment. It can be a parody video or a badly thought out selfie.
The difficulty is that many instances of Cyber-racism are seen as being “just a joke.” There’s a long standing tradition of racist humour from many mainstream comedians, films and TV shows, and online media can often be seen as just an extension of traditional media, causing people to think that what they are saying or doing is acceptable if it is somehow meant to be funny. Unfortunately, regardless of the intention, racism is still harmful and in many cases against the law.
Humanrights.gov gives this example:
A woman married to an Aboriginal man complained that pages on a social networking site contained comments and images demeaning to Aboriginal people and claimed that this amounted to racial hatred. The complaint was resolved by the Commission with an agreement that the social networking site would block access to the page in Australia.
The page in question was defended by people who claimed that the content was created and posted in jest. It was clearly offensive to many other people however, and certainly to the woman who lodged the complaint.
Essentially, the only way to effectively respond to racism is to take a blanket approach, and say that any kind of online humour that uses racist discourses is just not funny. Any Facebook groups, pages or posts that laugh at ethnicities are unacceptable.