Jessie Daniels: The Epistemology of White Supremacy
11.17.06 | Epistemology, how we know what we say we know, is shifting because of new digital media. In Howard Rheingold’s keynote speech for the recent online conference hosted by NMC, he observed that “search engines have replaced libraries” for young people. This is certainly consistent with my experiences with youth in New York City and how they evaluate claims about race online.
A new form of white supremacy online raises important questions about race, civil rights and digital media. Cloaked websites intentionally seek to disguise their political agenda and publisher; with regard to race, sites appear to be legitimate civil rights website but are, in fact, published by white supremacists.
If you look at the Alexa Web service rankings (which tracks website traffic), for the cloaked white supremacist site (www[dot]martinlutherking[dot]org—see comments below for our choice of formatting) and for the legitimate civil rights site put up by the King Center (www.thekingcenter.org), the number of hits are almost identical and in the tens of millions. In my research, young people (ages 15-19) were unable to distinguish between these sites in meaningful ways. One young person referred to both sites as “biased” because one was “created by an individual” (the cloaked site) while the other was “created by King’s widow” (the legitimate site).
While a good deal has been written about the potential threat of hate online that targets youth, this is often framed around the issue of “recruiting” young people to join white supremacist groups. To me, this is an unlikely outcome and a misguided concern. The much more likely, and pernicious, threat is an epistemological one. That is, the epistemological threat of cloaked websites is the ability to change how we know what we say we know about issues that have been politically hard won, such as civil rights for African Americans. Because search engines have replaced libraries for young people (and, they have), young people find information about race, civil rights, and white supremacy online. Teaching critical digital media literacy has to be combined with teaching critical thinking about race and racism.
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