by Princess Harmony Rodriguez
Recently, a video depicting members of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) singing a racial slur-laden song making reference to lynching shocked and appalled the nation. The outcry resulted in a near-instantaneous dissolution of the chapter and expulsion of its ringleaders. However, the attitudes expressed by SAE aren’t exactly isolated. In fact, the outcry spawned the #NotJustSAE hashtag in which students of color shared our experiences with racism on our college campuses. An ongoing source of controversy, Twitter and Facebook university “confessions” pages and anonymous posting apps are making waves for the exact same reasons.
In particular, the app Yik Yak has been highlighted as a source of trouble because of the chaos it enables. While some posts are innocent, such as those asking about parties or asking who got the hookup to a good weed man, there are too many that are dedicated to violent and white supremacist acts. On campuses across America, the app is either creating or worsening gender, racial, and class divisions. Schools, including schools already under a microscope for their (mis)handling of sexual violence, are allowing individual students who come forward about sexual violence to get targeted by those who were reported. A dear friend of mine, who had already survived violence, was targeted on her college’s Yik Yak. They threatened her with violence for daring to speak what happened to her. I saw the screenshots and so did the administration.
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Similarly, schools already the target of criticism for their racial divisions are rife with yaks that are filled with violent threats and racial epithets. For example, a school in North Philadelphia that’s already the target of criticism for gentrifying the area and for having a disturbingly high number of overt racists has racist yaks posted almost every day. Words that ordinarily have no negative connotation to them, such as “local”, are racialized and turned into an acceptable form of the N-word. When posts get reported to college administrators, it’s almost a given that the administration will wash its hands of the responsibility to handle it. Civil rights laws such as Title VI and Title IX (among others) and the Department of Education’s subsequent Dear Colleague Letters say that universities have a responsibility to handle violence and harassment from students on campus, even if the violence occurs online. By ignoring and failing to acknowledge incidents of harassment and violence, they’re breaking the law. Even if they’re unable to track down who is responsible for particular threats, they can at least make an attempt to acknowledge the problem. This highlights the problem of anonymity.
When people use anonymity, it can either be used for innocuous or outright negative purposes. In Yik Yak’s case, as has been noted across the country, it’s used mostly for negative purposes. In its short history, Yik Yak has been used to make bomb threats, target specific students who were already survivors of sexual violence, target entire races of people, and threaten said people with violence. In each of those examples, with the exception of only a few, not only did those posts remain, they got upvoted. And they didn’t get just one or two upvotes, they got dozens of upvotes. Most yaks don’t even get 5 upvotes. But they got dozens.
Juxtapose that with statements made by one of its creators. Brooks Buffington claimed the app was made for the “disenfranchised”. With violent yaks not being removed and a constant stream of racist yaks, who really is disenfranchised to them? Who really is marginalized to them? Who are the real victims? The answer is simple. The victims are the white bros who use that app, in their own minds.
Then, what purpose does anonymity – especially in terms of this particular app – serve? Anonymity serves as a weapon for the patriarchy. Why? Because they’re not held accountable for their words. When someone posts an anti-black, racist, and/or misogynistic yak, the people who view it – including the people in charge of moderating those posts – support it. They upvote it. Even if people report the post, it’s probably not gonna go down. In other words, it serves as a weapon for the patriarchy because the audience of that post, from top to bottom, supports that viewpoint. And that’s more than just within the app, since this app was targeted at college students, so the audience then includes administration because it’s inevitable that they’ll get involved.
Usually, “involved” only means that they acknowledge that it’s happening and then nothing happens from there. Despite their responsibility to protect their students from violence, particularly violence based on race, gender, etc., they refuse to act. They protect and enable the status quo: violence towards gender/sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and oppressed racial groups. With the exclusion of incidents that go viral, such as the SAE chant, this status quo is never challenged by administration, There is an unspoken agreement between the powers that be and the students that violence against oppressed people is okay.
In an ideal world, anonymity would protect the oppressed and serve as a means for us to subvert the negative things forced on us. However, that is not the world we live in and while there are those who have used anonymity for that purpose, it’s more common to run into racists and misogynists using anonymity as a shield to keep themselves from being accountable for their words and actions. In this world, anonymity and the existing power structure make it so that oppressors don’t have to be accountable for their actions or words unless they become too much of a burden for the patriarchy to protect.
For us to further the conversation started by #NotJustSAE, we have to acknowledge the challenges that anonymity creates for oppressed people. Some college students started campaigns to “take back” Yik Yak from students who use it to harm others. While anonymity serves as a weapon for the oppressors, it can be made to serve us as a means to fight back and change the environment on the internet, on campus, and in society overall.
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Princess is an afro-latin trans woman, survivor of childhood and adult sexual violence, creator, otaku, and anti-violence activist. Her writing has been published on The Feminist Wire, Feministing, Black Girl Dangerous, Know Your IX, and FeministaJones.com.