“Like” It or Not, Facebook Statuses Can Uphold Whiteness

 

Once you log in to your Facebook account, you are bombarded with statuses that convey people’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and ideas. Although statuses allow individuals to share their lives on a public platform with their social networks, it’s interesting to note the nature of the messages that make it on to the news feed. Using critical white theory as a lens to analyze this social media mechanism, I argue that individuals may subconsciously use it as a tool to seem more powerful, or rather, more white.

According to some theorists, the concept of whiteness is shifting from a focus on skin color to a focus on power dynamics. Race is a social construct, or a social phenomenon that develops from society’s collective attachment of meaning on to people and objects; in 1967, sociologists Peter L. Bergerand Thomas Luckmann coined the term social construction in their book “The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge”. Being that whiteness is a societal concept, it has no biological foundation. Race is therefore recognizable due to the characteristics that people associate with the construct, which tend to change over the course of history. These characteristics first revolved around skin color and phenotype, but they now include symbols of power and privilege such as beauty, talent, wealth, fame, leadership, and intelligence. In her book “The History of White People,” historian and author Nell Irvin Painter identifies black celebrities and leaders such as Beyoncé Knowles, Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama in possession of these sources of power, which whitens their identities; Painter describes, “none of these individuals is white, but being white these days is not what it used to be” (389). Due to this view of whiteness as a power structure, people who do not have light skin have the ability to obtain whiteness and the privilege that comes along with it: “the attractive qualities that Saxons-Anglo-Saxons-Nordics-whites were assumed to monopolize are also to be found elsewhere” (389). Facebook is one of the social media outlets for people of all ethnicities and skin colors to express themselves while, through the lens of critical white theory, communicating their association with whiteness to others.

The connection exists between this theory of whiteness and Facebook because status updates showcase individuals with all of the same qualities that attribute to whiteness. Popular status content includes current event opinions that indicate knowledge, announcements about famous locations visited that attest to wealth in experience and the wallet, clever jokes that showcase intelligence, accomplishments that feature talent and success, and attendance at interesting events that boasts popularity and exclusiveness. Enforcing this white phenomenon to persist is the “liking” system. The more white a status, the more likes it receives. From my own experience for example, a status’s like count is especially high when a person communicates that he/she received a sought-after job offer or a letter of acceptance from a prestigious university. Even statuses that involve complaints about school assignments, job annoyances, or boredom indicate the individual’s possession of white privilege by showing that he or she has the opportunity to access education, earn money, and acquire the leisure time to be bored. These favorable circumstances associated with white privilege are constantly recycled on Facebook statuses, further perpetuating the need to vaunt a powerful identity.

Research Questions:

How do Facebook users pick and choose which statuses to like and comment on? What is their societal motivation or strategy?

How do Facebook and other social media outlets help perpetuate different forms of discrimination including racism, sexism, ageism etc.?

References:

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor, 1967. Print.

Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. First Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

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8 thoughts on ““Like” It or Not, Facebook Statuses Can Uphold Whiteness

  1. I don’t necessarily think that Facebook upholds whiteness per se because it’s userbase has spread worldwide to all parts of the globe. In fact, most of its users come from Asia as seen in these statistics. http://www.internetworldstats.com/facebook.htm

    I think that being a Facebook user has more to do with modernity and being technologically savvy, because you essentially learn how to build a good profile and accumulate friends while at the same time trying to maintain your own privacy. Rather than Facebook upholding whiteness, I think it would be more accurate to say that Facebook upholds class status and being an active Facebook user tells people a lot about your socioeconomic background. Majority of Facebook users probably own computers, laptops, iPads or smartphones where they can check their account frequently, thus are the people in society’s upper class.

  2. Although I do not agree with the overall argument that Facebook upholds whiteness, I can see how some of your points support a shift in the concept of whiteness. As you mentioned, prominent black Americans are often referred to as “white” in they way they speak, dress and act. It is almost as if instead of saying someone is successful, we say they act like a white person.

    I think it is interesting that you argue that status updates show privilege. As a white male from a predominantly white part of the country, and living in an area where most people take vacations to exotic places no has ever heard of, I can see how their posts and pictures would display their wealth for all of their Facebook friends to see. I think it would be interesting to try to guess someone’s social status based on status updates and places they “check-in” on Facebook.

    Peridotted, I took a look at the statistics in the link you provided. It looks to me as if Facebook is actually most prevalent in terms of the number of users in Europe, with North America second and Asia third. That is from the column “FB Users June 30, 2011″.

  3. Yea I agree with Wildfan; I have no clue how a facebook status is used to uphold a person’s race/ethnicity unless they are posting about it specifically. It DOES make a lot more sense, however, for facebook to be used a tool for displaying class or social status. And, as mentioned above, this can be very easy to spot out based on the pictures someone posts about their luxurious vacations, celebrities they meet, or the places one “checks” into. Going off of that, if you CHOOSE to make the argument that all these things are indicators of what it means to be white and privileged then that is another story/argument. However, the problem here is that not everyone who goes on vacation, has a lot of money, and owns nice things is white. Once again as Wilfdfan mentioned, there seems to be a stigma against minorities who happen to have these privilege (regardless of how they earned it) in that they must have “sold out” to white people or something. I find that very unfair to say, because not all white people are wealthy, nor do they all have a lot of nice things. So does that mean then that if you are white and NOT rich that you are a failure because everything in life is supposed to be easier for being white?

    • Revan010: I want you to expand your thinking in your question, “I have no clue how a facebook status is used to uphold a person’s race/ethnicity unless they are posting about it specifically”?

      Does this suggest that things can only involve race and/or racism if only expressly stated as such? Where do institutional forms of racism that exist or “racism without racists” fit into this assumption? In our discussions of racial intent and the devastating consequences of racial domination/inequality even without elusive “intent”–does anyone ever explicitly address race and/or racism?

      What does it mean to be in an alleged “post-racial society” in the post-Civil Rights era wherein even talking about race is somehow construed as racist thought/action?

      While we are still working our way toward intersectionality theory, you will likely find that it accounts for and provides an excellent starting point for understanding this race/class/gender/sexuality question you raise (“So does that mean then that if you are white and NOT rich that you are a failure because everything in life is supposed to be easier for being white”?).

      Have any of you encountered intersectionality in your Intro to Sociology or other courses? How does it serve as a tool for providing a more nuanced understanding of identity, privilege and domination?

  4. Jhnw4, you’ve raised a provocative question that captures the critique of the essence of everything that says, “white is right.”

    If we can think beyond individuals’ intent in posting to Facebook, we can begin to think about the perceptions of individuals who interact socially in these spaces.

    What if Facebook itself (and its success) was a structure shaped and fostered by whiteness and privilege?

    You may be interested in Danah Boyd’s “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook” wherein she found that young (and privileged–in various ways) people “fled” MySpace, perceiving it to be a “ghetto,” and flocked to Facebook.

    Article here:
    http://www.danah.org/papers/2009/WhiteFlightDraft3.pdf

    For example, one of her respondents, Kat, shared, “It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever.”

    From her original article at http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html:

    “For all of 2005 and most of 2006, MySpace was the cool thing for high school teens and Facebook was the cool thing for college students. This is not to say that MySpace was solely high school or Facebook solely college, but there was a dominating age division that played out in the cultural sphere.

    When Facebook opened to everyone last September, it became relatively easy for any high school student to join (and then they simply had to get permission to join their high school network). This meant that many more high school teens did join, much to the chagrin and horror of college students who had already begun writing about their lack of interest in having HS students on “their” site. Still, even with the rise of high school students, Facebook was framed as being about college. This was what was in the press. This was what college students said. Facebook is what the college kids did. Not surprisingly, college-bound high schoolers desperately wanted in.

    In addition to the college framing, the press coverage of MySpace as dangerous and sketchy alienated “good” kids. Facebook seemed to provide an ideal alternative. Parents weren’t nearly as terrified of Facebook because it seemed “safe” thanks to the network-driven structure. (Of course, I’ve seen more half-naked, drink-carrying high school students on Facebook than on MySpace, but we won’t go there.)

    As this past school year progressed, the division around usage became clearer. In trying to look at it, I realized that it was primarily about class.”

    This and similar works to elucidate some of the points each of you raise above are addressed in the new anthology, Race After the Internet:
    http://www.amazon.com/Race-After-Internet-Lisa-Nakamura/dp/0415802369

    As you can see from the analyses, these issues are not just solely about race and/or class but they intersect to reproduce privilege and domination in these spaces and beyond.

  5. Thank you all for your comments! Each of you makes excellent points that complicate this view of race and the connections to Facebook that I make. In retrospect I probably should have explained this specific take on whiteness with more detail in another visual portfolio piece, but by addressing some of your points I hope to make my analysis more clear and spark further discussion on the topic. I am still in the process of preparing my responses, and I appreciate your patience!

  6. I see that you are still preparing you response and I would like to add that I think that facebook uphold class privilege more so then Whiteness. As a Black person I also have from time to time put up pictures of my trips around the world. They do not reflect my experience with Whiteness but instead the money my family has attained. Not every who is White has the same class privilege as I do making the conversation more about something most people never want to think about. Unless your on Wall street or somewhere else occupying…

  7. The statistics you provided are very helpful, Peridotted. Although North America comes in second with the most Facebook users, with Europe coming in first and Asia in third, I should have specified that my analysis focuses on American society as opposed to the global community. The Facebook statuses that I am exposed to come from people who have either grew up in the United States or have spent enough time there to be exposed to the nature of racial inequality in America, therefore my analysis is limited to the scope of United States society.

    In regards to social and economic factors, I agree that a Facebook status can reveal a great deal about a Facebook user’s socioeconomic status and not a user’s racial identity explicitly. My analysis describes how socioeconomic status intersects with whiteness and becomes a part of the white identity in the American context. This is a very controversial claim, but nonetheless something to consider when breaking down the nature of whiteness in the United States. Yes, white people can be economically disadvantaged and black people can be economically well-off, but considering the racial and often racist images that penetrate the United States consciousness through literature, media, and entertainment, socioeconomic status has become a factor of whiteness in that context. Like danielledirks stated, people may not have intent, but the exposure of different images and social interactions shape people’s daily performances and perceptions.

    Regarding the social construction aspect of whiteness, there is more to whiteness as an identity than skin color or ethnicity alone. People of all skin colors and ethnicities can perform “whiteness” in various ways through a dramaturgical lens. I recommend reading the following piece from my introduction to sociology course written by New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples, in which he writes about his experiences as a black man in the United States and how they led him to “perform whiteness” to an extent: http://swc2.hccs.edu/kindle/Staples_Brent_Just_Walk_on_By.pdf

    Thank you all again for your patience! I look forward to reading any further comments.

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