This episode features two segments. First up, an interview with Solana Larsen and Bridget Todd, two of the folks behind Mozilla’s Internet Health Report and its award-winning podcast, IRL. This year, Mozilla decided to publish its Internet Health Report as a series of podcast episodes delving into the experiences of people building AI and working on AI policy. The series digs into a range of topics, including surveillance, labor, healthcare, geospatial data, and disinformation in social media.
The second segment features a discussion with William Frey, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University and the lead author of a new paper titled Digital White Racial Socialization: Social Media and the Case of Whiteness. The authors conclude that “Better understanding how future generations of white adolescents are normatively socialized into whiteness and being white on and through social media may be critical for disruptions to and divestments in these processes.”
A transcript of my discussion with William Frey is below.
I noticed this week on Twitter that you had published a new paper, which is in the Journal of Research on Adolescence in a special series that they are doing on “dismantling systems of racism and depression during adolescence.” You are the co-author of this paper– the lead author– with Amanda Weiss at Yale, L. Monique Ward at the University of Michigan, and Courtney Cogburn at Columbia University. Before we get into the paper, can you just tell me a little bit about your research enterprise, how you come to the topic of ‘Digital White Racial Socialization’? What is your research about?
Absolutely. Yeah, so this paper started back in 2018, and I think my research interests specifically in this area became more specified when I was working on the paper with Dr. Cogburn on one of her dissertation papers actually. And it really helped me dive into the family psychology literature, which is written by mostly Black and Brown folks on racial, ethnic socialization. And it’s mainly around individual or interpersonal messaging around race, racism, racialization. And I had to dive into that literature to help out Courtney with her, with her paper. That paper took me on a kind of a personal journey. I began to think a lot about the ways that I was using social media as a young person, 18, 19, 20 years old on Tumblr, on Twitter back in the day, and how little I learned about race, racialization from my parents in direct ways.
I was learning probably in more indirect, subtle ways, but how much of those conversations for me happened online and in these really unique spaces that I don’t think I would’ve ever come across if I hadn’t had had access to digital spaces. And I didn’t see any of that being studied remarkably in 2018. Young, young people, people of the age of five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, all being on social media or being on tablets learning a ton or having a lot of FaceTime with digital surfaces and interfaces. I didn’t read a lot about that. And so not naively, I understood that people had been talking about it, but just not in psychology. And so this paper was really important for me. And I had a lot of beautiful help from Dr. Cogburn. There’s this beautiful photo on Twitter that I shared of the first outline that happened in 2018, that’s on a whiteboard and it is such a beautiful moment to capture it. But I also have the really wonderful moment of connecting to one of my past mentors through it.
I worked with Dr. L. Monique Ward, who’s a prolific media socialization scholar, but more traditional media– magazines, TV. And I worked in her lab back in 2012. We kept in contact and I was able to contact her, I think it was last, it might have been 2020, kind of towards the start of the pandemic. And then it was a beautiful experience of bringing her on board to kind of connect, because I know she’d been thinking about these things, but it was wonderful to kind connect her and with that conceptualization to have her be a part of that work too. And so that was kind of the start of this paper that I then realized needed to be an interdisciplinary conceptualization of the paper and bringing together multiple literatures.
Well, let’s talk about some of that intellectual context just quickly. Media socialization, and then specifically white racial socialization. For the listener that maybe isn’t familiar with this particular practice, and I’m not either, give us the basics.
Absolutely. So in psychology, there’s been terminology and racial, ethnic socialization, and generally that is, or socialization more generally, I’ll start there. Socialization more generally is how people are socialized into society, how they learn the ways of being in the world, that the ways of doing things. And it’s often the people that are focused on the most, the agents that are focused on the most are parents are guardians. The people that young children would see the most. Now this is really important because it changes across developmental stages. So socialization is a very young person, changes when you’re an adolescent and those processes will change, but also those agents will change. So then peers become more important as you get older, or neighborhoods or schools become more important as agents of socialization.
And so it’s really how.. and this can be both overt and covert…. so they can be both overt messaging of ‘I’m teaching children how to behave around certain people, what to do, what not to do, teaching norms, value systems,’ but it also can be behavioral, just showing. I look to my parents, I look to the people around me to dictate how I should behave based on incentive system. So if I yell out something in a room and people would treat me really negatively for doing that, I’m going to learn an important lesson that doing things like that have consequences. So this is similarly when you add a racialization to it. And this is the really challenging piece about studying. This is in psychology. Psychology has a general understanding that systems of race are constructed and systems of racism are constructions, they’re social constructions. So they don’t exist naturally in the world or biologically.
The other challenging piece to that is that they often treat race as a demographic or as something that is biological and natural, that people have a race and that they will exist in the world naturally with a race. Now writing this paper, it was challenging because we kind of needed to disrupt that later parts that we treat white racial socialization as an orientation to the world and as things that people are doing in the world. They aren’t necessarily what and who people are, they are things that you’ll do in the world. And so that’s what we’re really trying to think through here is that how are the ways that children who are categorized as white or adolescents categorized as white, how are they doing things in the world and learning white ways of being, that are very closely aligned with white domination, white supremacy, so on and so forth.
Now, the thing I want to be very careful with is though, I’m not saying that these are only white extremist or white nationalist ways of being. They also might be more white neoliberalism or white saviorism that are less focused on in the mainstream media as being dangerous or influential, so on and so forth.
So let’s just maybe dig into this just a little bit more. You have this concept of whiteness as doings, which I think kind of you’re describing here a little bit. And that’s part of how you’re setting up this idea of white racial socialization, how it works. And then you kind of bring in this set of ideas around adolescent development. What is ‘whiteness as doings?’
So I started reading this paper by Sarah Ahmed and it was called “A phenomenology of whiteness.” And she has a brilliant section in there called whiteness as an orientation. And for me, it really helped me think through because I am trying to think of how to say this. Oftentimes whiteness is thought of as an identity or is it something that I am trying to cultivate for myself and that’s very much so how the way things are in psychology research, racial identity is thought of a lot.
With this paper, we kind of wanted to flip that on its head a little bit to get away from only focusing on individuals that contexts actually have a way of manipulating people into behaving specific ways, into doing things a specific way. And so that can come from individuals doing things in the world that align with forms of white domination or forms of white cultural domination or normativity. But it’s also not just an individual’s responsibility that when we’re thinking about context, let’s say Columbia, for example, or let’s say Twitter, that a context can actually have designed features that would support specific ways of behaving and punish or dissuade people from behaving in other ways. And that is often aligned with a very dominant, normative way of being. And so whiteness as doing is thinking about not just people identifying a specific way or the attitudes that they may have.
I don’t know if you’ve been seeing recently, it’s a lot of research– often survey research– that is like ‘White people are more liberal around race than ever.’ It’s a ‘great awakening,’ I think it’s been called. The challenge with that is that these scales are quite old and that White people often learn how to answer them in socially desirable ways. And that often doesn’t properly interrogate the ways that they might be behaving on a day-to-day basis that might prove otherwise that they aren’t as awoke as they think they are. And they might be behaving in ways that are more aligned with the cultural normativity around whiteness or white domination. And so when we think about doing, it’s trying to get away from that very kind of stereotypical thinking around this is only about beliefs and attitudes and getting more into the everyday behaviors of people and how contexts might influence the ways that people are behaving in the world.
So you blend this idea of ‘whiteness as doings’ with adolescent development and kind of basics of that, which brings us to adolescents on social media and the way that social media has become such a substantial context in which as you said, at the outset, young people kind of come to know themselves, know the world, take signals about how to behave. What do we know about the role of social media in the socialization of White children?
That’s a good question. With this paper and with this type of research, it was kind of piecing together things to try and fill in the gaps of what we don’t know. One of the most prolific thinkers about race online and on social media is Brendesha Tynes at USC. And she’s been doing this work for 20 plus years. And we know a lot about youth of color experiencing racism, experiencing microaggressions, experiencing harm online and through social media. We also know from the work of Robert Eschmann who’s now at Columbia, thinking that people can also create counter publics online and spaces where they’re learning other things about race that aren’t dominant narratives, or it can encourage Black and Brown folks to speak up and speak out and have the power to do that in digital spaces.
So I tend to, like a lot of my mentors before me, tend to think of social media as a tool versus something that is good or bad, but it can be used in the ways that people use it. The challenge, I think, becomes that social media platforms may orient users in a very specific way that makes it harder to build counter publics or to do things that might not be in line with racialized norms, so on and so forth. And so that’s kind of the main theme of this paper is that, how do we begin to think about social media as possibly orienting specific types of racialization or new types of racialization in new ways and new forms and what does that call us to think about these processes of racial socialization in different ways that aren’t just messaging, that aren’t just, how do I retroactively ask adults about what they learned about race as children, or ask parents what they’re teaching their kids about race, but really get into the nuts and bolts of the features of digital platforms that may be encouraging specific types of racialized participation, and not others.
For example, the last kick over the last two years, anti-racist behaviors and actions in the world, how are social media platforms not encouraging those or preventing them from happening or preventing digital organizing from happening? These are all very sociopolitical questions that I think it would be really, really important for us to think through as young folks are growing up in this increasingly digital world and learning so much about race and racism online, White kids included. And often not included in the conversation around how are White kids actually participating in racism online or participating in the disruption of racism online. It’s often the study around Black kids experiencing tons of racism online, but then there’s that added shade of white innocence afterwards, where it’s like, we don’t know anything about the White kids that are doing this, or we’re not actually going to study them. And so that becomes a really important question when we’re thinking about whiteness as an orientation or as doings is what are the things that are actually increasing inequity online, around constructions of race.
You point out at one point in the paper that some of this thinking is kind of counter to maybe some basic assumptions a lot of folks in tech have about the internet as a kind of neutral context or as a democratizing space. I don’t know, why do those conceptual frameworks matter or why do you try to counter those here?
In this paper for me, it was really important. In this work moving forward, it’s really important to honor the thinkers that come before me and while psychology hasn’t specifically studied or racial, ethnic socialization, psychology hasn’t specifically studied digital spaces, there’s a very long history of digital scholars, communication scholars who study race in the internet. A ton of folks coming out of the University of Michigan when you think about, Andre Brock or Lisa Nakamura, Brendesha Tynes, like I stated earlier, Ruha Benjamin, so on and so forth. They’re all thinking about how digital spaces have always had that kind of myth, there’s that famous comic, I’m sure you’ve heard of, is the New Yorker I think, or something like that, New York Post maybe of, “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
It’s this classic–I feel like it’s written about in every single book I read about race in the internet– but it’s that classic myth. That once you’re online, nobody will know, racism or race won’t matter anymore. And in a lot of ways, not only is that increasingly untrue that we are becoming a very visual digitalized space where if somebody doesn’t know what you look like, it becomes kind of a red flag online. But on top of that is that we have plenty of research to show that racism still matters in digital spaces and is being rebuilt into systems. Whether the examples of that are Black content creators being kicked off of sites, even though they don’t break up any terms of service agreements or activists being shut down and having to have many different accounts or whether you want to talk about TikTok content creators going viral, because they’re White folks doing a similar dance and stealing content from other folks who are often young, Black folks creating that content.
We have so many examples to show that that’s untrue. And so for me, bringing those types of frameworks in was to try and I think to front end some of that research for psychologists who might want to get involved in digital racial socialization and they don’t make similar assumptions about the internet when doing that, that we might get here and now we’re only going to focus on messaging from the internet versus viewing it as a dynamic design space that a lot of thinkers from digital and communication studies have already shown that it is right and would make our research and studying in the future way more dynamic and important.
So you talk about specific social media affordances that play into this conceptual framework that you have here around digital white racial socialization. And there’s a range of them. We should talk about a few, asynchronicity, permanence, maybe let’s start there.
Interesting bringing them in. I think that they’re positives and negatives bringing these in that, bringing in affordances is figuring out what does something that I’m interacting with allow me to do. It’s always used in very complex language and that’s about as clear as I can put it. For example with asynchronicity, if you and I are having a conversation, it’s probably expected that if you ask me a question, I’m going to respond sometime soon or something will be going on, I’ll be head nodding or things like that. With social media, most of the time you get into a space where it’s less of that immediate participation, and I could wait a whole day to respond to you. Now that can be pulled positive and negative, there are times where that might encourage that pressure of responding immediately and possibly not thinking through what I’m saying or there’s that time where it might allow me to think about it more and provide a different response that I might, unless if we were just having a face-to-face conversation.
The other thing I just mentioned is that you also have cue absences. And so on social media, you can’t see me nod my head, I can’t see you nod your head. And so that, I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying, I have to think more about the tone of my message or the tone might be misconstrued, or I have to do more interpreting of what somebody is saying through text. Another example might be availability. In the past, if I was interacting with peers in school with, for thinking specifically about racial, ethnic socialization around peer influence, that might stop at when I leave school, versus now I’m connected to my peers online and not only throughout the day, but when I go home at night. And so that not only has implications for racism and racism being proliferated in digital spaces, and it can have a far reaching impact through digital spaces, but it also has implications for the things we might learn online, that it’s very immersive and it’s constant. And sometimes I think feels like it’s really hard to escape from.
So those are a few implications, some of the social media affordances. I think one of the things that I do want to pinpoint that I love about Dr. Andre Brockworth when he wrote Digital Blackness, sorry, Distributed Blackness, that he talks also about the cultural affordances of digital platforms, the things that platforms allow to do with specific cultural affordances. So the ways that people can use digital platforms to create culture, to shift culture, to perform culture so on and so forth, that I think some of the social media affordance research sometimes misses. And so I really appreciated in his study of Black folks on Twitter and blackness online, I think he’s really pushed that further by thinking about culture online too, which I think also plays into thinking about digital white racial socialization and the ways that white youth are participating online.
So you bring in this idea of racialized pedagogical zones, places where ideologies are enacted where we are doing race as it were. And you’ve mentioned a couple of those already, but I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just ask you to kind of concentrate on that a little bit in your remarks. And you have this phrase here, the digital white habitus, what is that?
Yeah, and Wadabani Asilva has talks about white habitus as this type of socialization, socializing tastes, the way you experience the world and often proliferates in a way that creates deep segregation offline, that White folks are around White people, and they don’t want to be around folks of color. And it reinforces deep segregation and a lack of relationships with Black and Brown folks. It’s like creating your environment around whiteness, that the things I want in my world are in line with a very specific type of white domination. Now that has had some pushback with Maggie Hagerman who wrote the book, White Kids. And she critiques this idea of white habitous being this inevitable thing that people experience, that white people experience specifically and talks about children as having an agency that they can shift that if they want to, they can challenge that if they want to so on and so forth now.
So we highlighted both of those in the paper, but we also wanted to push forward this new term, that the internet also might be creating a digital white habitus that a way of creating and reinforcing digital segregation or the… And I think that this where this conversation often stops is the digital divide of access to the internet, versus once we get on the internet, they actually might be segregation and divides once we get there, once we are in the space, in the networks, in the interfaces of the internet, there are also forms of segregation and by segregation, I don’t just mean separation, but inequitable resource distribution, inequitable ability to access the tools of the internet or the tools of spaces. And so this is kind of what we wanted to think through of how are digital spaces online also creating this kind of white segregation and habitus.:
For example, Avriel Epps-Darling, she’s at Harvard. And she did research on, I believe it was Spotify, but talking about the automation of digital systems and young folks and people being pushed into recommendation algorithms based on demographic information, the ways that these automated systems are funneling people into specific experiences online. And that can be very informed by specific design elements that are heavily racialized and through the imagination of the creators of these sites. And so I think it’s really important for us if we’re going to think about the experiences of adolescents online, we also need to think about the ways that sites were designed to inform a specific type of user and to be for a specific type of user and to kind of other very traditional types of users such as Black and Brown folks, such as non-binary folks, trans folks, the ability to access specific types of information, folks with disabilities.
You have a new type of marginalization online that needs to be really at the forefront of the ways that we study these sites and in all throughout the process, right at the beginning of creating a site, even though those are often the times where these sites go at the fastest, we need to get this out there, we need to cut corners to kind of push the envelope. And often the cut corners that they make are cutting away from the possibility of certain users being able to access the space and use it to the best of their abilities.
Most of this paper is about socialization broadly, not about necessarily the problem of white supremacy as we think of it as sort of extremist behavior activity. But you do touch on violence and white supremacy and even recruitment into white nationalist or white supremacist groups. How does that come in, how do those problems kind of come into your thinking here?
It was hard to include that. We wanted to include an example that was very pertinent, and the example we have is a tweet from a White mother who was shared probably a 100,000 times in 2019. And this is something that happens cyclically. So we’ve seen the same tweets earlier this year when you had the shootings in Buffalo and I think White parents get very afraid of digital spaces as kind of this new age stranger danger. It’s this new age, I don’t know who my children are talking to online and they’re in danger of being recruited into groups and becoming one of these White kids that kills people and engaged in racialized violence. Now the way we engage it here is not to dismiss that as a possibility, but to expand the reality that these White parents are often engaged in processes of socialization of their White kids already and what we know from research is that White kids often go online or often engage in their own practices of self socialization to reaffirm their beliefs when they’re in adolescence, not to necessarily create extremist different ones.
So there has to be some conversation around the cultivation of a fertile ground for those types of beliefs to sit in. And so oftentimes I think we see White parents try to separate themselves from that type of conversation, that has nothing to do with me. They’re engaged or, after these events happen, we don’t know what happened, versus engaging in some type of reflection, interrogation of the ways that white society tries to insulate itself and teach about race and do race in ways that can be violent and often are violent. And that violence often doesn’t come out as just school shootings or as just shootings. It comes out in other ways and ways that are often not categorized as racialized violence, but ways that really protect a normative white structure. And so how do we begin to kind of look at the white family structure as a place that is cultivating these types of ideals, that is creating the inequity of the society that we live in. And it was really important for us to not get lost in the internet is a scary place where recruiters are, be afraid, be careful.
It’s like, how do we include all of ourselves in these conversations and really look at this as a collective issue that we all need to be a part of? And it’s not placing the blame somewhere else, it’s looking inwards and looking collectively of how do we build these types of collectives and what are the questions we have to ask one another in ourselves around the ways that we are doing, these inequitable practices in the world that are often just situated as race or just situated as extreme forms of racism.
Now, this paper is presumably for other folks in your field, other people working in psychology, developmental psychology, social work, you say that you hope it will open up new directions for future research amongst academics. But if I were to, I don’t know, put you in front of social media executives who are designing these systems and do have responsibility for the types of affordances that you’ve discussed, I don’t know, what would you hope they take away from a paper like this?
I think there are a couple layers to it. The first thing I say is they, and I don’t want to get too deep into this because I know less about the design literature and there’s a ton of folks that do design justice. The questions that I would ask or kind of push forward is that what are the implications of the design decisions you’re making. That code is just not just code. It has implications for the ways that people are able to behave in space, the things that people are able to do, but also the ways that we moderate communities. And so how do we involve more people in those conversations and be flexible and dynamic to change when something is not working, it’s often kind of batten down the hatches when things go wrong versus how do we shift, be fluid, be willing to think for things to end if they need to end.
So I think most of my conversations would be around that and really a deep connection to the people that are using these spaces and what are the implications of that? The other thing is that I think, and I think Twitter has done some of this, but just opening the doors for people to study, to study and engage and trying to understand what’s happening online, not just the scary things, but also the really beautiful things. There are some of the most amazing community experiences I’ve ever had have been in digital spaces. And so I think this paper definitely sets off some alarm bells, but it also, I think, highlights some of the abilities that for digital spaces to offer a deep reckoning with this offline digital habitus, white digital habitus, and what are the ways, the creative ways that people are organizing in digital spaces or shifting their understandings of race and racism even later in life. We’re even seeing older White folks trying to engage in a relearning or resocialization of the things that they were learning when they were younger.
So I think most of my conversations will start at that place, but I think it really involves with the value systems. I think it’s a really hard to convince a social media company that is worried about specific things when they need to also include other things in their top priorities, what is the impact this is going to have in the world? How do I include those folks in these conversations and the development throughout the process, right? Not just at the end when things go wrong, but in the creation stages and begin to slow down a little bit. Moving fast has created some things, and it’s also created things that are really harmful for people. And also I think breaking away from the whiteness and white domination and white supremacy are only these extreme examples and starting to get into the nuances of the ways that’s practiced online.
The things that would not get qualified is reestablished inequity, but are still there. And I think Ruha Benjamin has a beautiful quote around that of like it was in her book, Race After Technology, around, as long as we focus on only the most extreme acts of violence as the examples, we lose all the ones in between, the way that it’s built in our textbooks and things like that, the way that it’s built into the interface, into the design, that becomes innocuous and neutral versus also encouraging those types of participation.
I grew up in the south and race and race issues have always been something that I’ve struggled with and tried to learn more about and to understand, and to understand my own failings in this regard. But certainly I think in community where I grew up, you were kind of thought of yourself as a White person as not a racist, as long as you didn’t have a Confederate flag on your bumper sticker, or you didn’t actively engage in use of a oppressive language or what have you. But of course, we’ve kind of come to a very different understanding as an adult, and I suppose we’re doing that as a society to some extent.
So on the side of all this, I also do kind of inter group dialogue or intra group dialogue intervention work with White folks. And so the work of George Yancey has been so helpful for that around the idea that White folks can’t be autonomous from racism, that we can’t just will ourselves out of being connected to systems or racism where I can’t just learn myself out of it. It requires a specific level of collective involvement that I can’t just harmlessly separate myself and I’m no longer a part of the problem. As long as I exist in this bodily form and am constructed this way, I need to take responsibility for that social location. And that requires me to get collectively involved. And it requires me to do specific things in the world and do things differently that I’ve been taught. And so that’s kind of where we want to get deeper too, is, thinking about whiteness as a doing, allows us to push to that space versus just cultivating positive, positive white identities.
That’s often the end point. People are going to say, the helms, ladders of white identity, and we need to get to this specific point. And when we think about whiteness as doings, we can actually shift behaviors and we can shift the ways that people practice on a daily basis versus just cultivating different senses of self.
I’ve asked you what you might say to a social media executive who had read this paper, but if there was a parent listening to this podcast, White parent who’s thinking about the experience that their child is having, what might you say to them? What should they be watching out for doing if they’ve are sympathetic to the types of ideas and conclusions that you’ve shared here?
I think it’s opening up the conversation. Rather than it being a fearful, rightful, what is my child doing online, I think it becomes not only a conversation of how my children are framing themselves in the world, what they’re learning about race, racism, whiteness, but also, what am I learning about whiteness and racism, what have I been teaching my child, how do I begin to shift those for myself? I think it’s never too late to start that type of internal reflective work because it is lifelong work.
We’ve been socialized since we were very young to be in the world a specific way to do things in the world a specific way, to think and learn specific ways, that it’s never too late to engage in those types of processes with our children to open up that space of feeling, to open up that space of really challenging the core of what it makes us as White people or White people in the world. And for that to be an engaged process and not a fearful process of, don’t do that, don’t think that, but an inquisitive process, a curious process. And I think that can never be separated.
I think people often go to the point of, I want to separate myself from this because this makes me guilty, shameful, nervous, embarrassed, and really embracing our inherent connections to histories, to systems of domination, to the acts that we do in the world that are connected to current systems of domination. If we confront those realities, it becomes a lot easier. The ways of shifting and disrupting those become clearer. And we can build those conversations, build those relationships without worrying about outing ourselves, because we are already out, we are already out in the world as being connected to those. And so I think that is the process that I’ve gone through, that I would also encourage White parents to go through, because I think it would make parenting easier to talk to children about where they’re socially located in the world. They are not White, they’ll be constructed as White, and what does that mean and how do we disrupt those realities?
William, thank you for speaking to me about this today. What’s next for you, what’s the next project?
So I am onto my dissertation. I am doing a community based research study on Reddit for my dissertation, looking at White folks online. And so the beautiful thing that Dr. Cogburn has pushed me to do is to create this conceptual work that will set up my future experimental and ethnographic studies. And so this is kind of a proof of concept of looking at a very unique racial context on Reddit and how does racial socialization show up for these White users? And so I’m really excited about that. It’s going take a few years, but very excited to kind of get engaged in that work and working with the Citizens and Technology Lab at Cornell and J. Nathan Matias, who’s wonderful and one of my side mentors. So that’s the next for me, and then just continuing to read and teach and do all the things.
Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thanks Justin, appreciate it.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.