Racist Cyberattacks at the University of Toronto Present a Teachable Moment

In the age of Trump, even Canadians are grappling with increasing hostility to principles of diversity and inclusion.  While Canada has never been the cultural oasis it is often portrayed to be, the country has historically been perceived by black folk and much of the world as much more progressive on diversity issues than its American neighbors to the south.

This week the Toronto Star reports that black students at the U of T are responding to what appears to be a persistent and orchestrated campaign of racial assault on campus and online.  The attacks highlight longstanding racial tensions in a bustling cosmopolitan citadel and illustrate once again that notions of a “post-racial Great North” are delusional.

Equally troubling is a failure to reckon that the default use of technology is only as righteous or evil as the minds that deploy them.  Technological education has never been a panacea to social ills that STEM proponents often present, rather tech is merely a tool to expand the same tired social mythologies, structured inequalities, and cultural antagonisms.  STEM education, even at the most prestigious and liberal institutions, will never rise above the fray until we engage how our best engineers and scientists are a part of our racial and social crises and not so intellectually advanced that they are free of racial animus.

The student response at U of T has been measured, inclusive, and targeted.  Let’s hope that the lessons learned here will empower higher educational officials and students to address racial and technological myths by disrupting the platforms used to propagate hate and harassment. There must be an honest and holistic reckoning with race, gender, and class across borders and across the curriculum.


I Have a Tweet: Martin Luther King, Jr., Social Media, and the Cure for Cynicism

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, what would he tweet? Would he be engaging trolls in twitter battles, would he be following Kim Kardashian, would he be retweeting inspirational quotes, and reposting the latest memes? Uh, probably. l have a funny feeling that he would be addicted to social media because he was a really cool, fun, young-spirited man who loved to engage people. He was one of the youngest people in his class at Morehouse, he was a chainsmoker, he loved Star Trek, he liked pool, and enjoyed music. However, there is at least one aspect of social media and pop culture that we would not be engaged in–cynicism.
Before I get to that, I thought it would be fun to “hack” King’s Twitter account from 1964, to see what he had to say. The closest thing to Twitter they had in the 1960s was a Western Union Telegram–kind of like reading tweets on paper the color of the Kelvin Instragram filter. Malcolm X sent his “frenemy” MLK @yungking a message on Tuesday, June 30, 1964 that offered Dr. King assistance after the Ku Klux Klan had done a drive-by shooting on non-violent protestors in St. Augustine. #tryme
A month before he was killed, King sent a telegram commending Cesar Chavez for his personal sacrifice and commitment to the use of nonviolence in union strikes. Cesar Chavez, was the Mexican American leader of migrant and immigrant farmworkers in California.  He had organized a strike and a 25-day fast to protest the unjust working conditions and treatment of workers. #hungryforjustice
When a bootlegger released a mixtape of King’s draft of what came to be the “I Have A Dream” speech, King took him to court and sued to have the proceeds directly benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Berry Gordy, that generation’s equivalent of Kanye West, telegraphed King and stated that he would be willing produce the album at Motown and even lose money on the project if it would help the cause. #2woke2bebroke
King’s telegrams reveal the impact of his social media messaging. King used his platform in the church, on the streets, and in the world to build up people and to advance justice, never to tear down or demean his enemies. King reminded us so eloquently in hundreds of sermons and speeches that our response to the world should be one based in positive change rather than cynicism. Speaking to high school students in Philadelphia in 1967 a speech entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint,” King said, “[Y]our life’s blueprint, must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. Don’t allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice. However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody and so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom.”
For every one person who is using social media to organize, speak truth to power today, five people are using it for snark, harassment, cyberbullying, or hate speech. Millions are using social media to hide behind an anonymizing wall of cynicism. Cynicism is a belief that people are purely self-interested and one should be dismissive of any solutions that require community. Similarly, apathy is a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. As some have written and King declared, it is apathy, not hate, that is the opposite of love. The greatest enemies of our nation are not the proponents of racial violence, the homophobe hurling slurs, or the xenophobe spitting insults at immigrants. Rather the greatest enemy of a “beloved community” are indifferent and uninterested individuals, too jaded by cynicism to commit to any lasting vision of change. Far too often our social media has made us anti-social, less invested in the principles that King urged us to uphold. That cynicism has made us far too apathetic and detached. Speaking of these followers King once said: “Detachment is the word which best describes them. Too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to experience sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist.”
A young college student named Barbara Jones Omolade, felt the pain of this detachment and recognized those same tendencies in her generation. She was a young woman enrolled in college in 1964 like many of you today. Her parents expected her to land a quiet job teaching in New York but she had other plans that left her father stone faced in silence and her mother weeping at the kitchen table. She came to Atlanta to work in the movement. What would you do if you defied your parents? She sent a snap (letter) to her parents:
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I decided to work for SNCC…Last summer, I used to watch civil rights demonstrators in Greenwood, Mississippi, on television. I used to cry because I know I should be there. But I also cried because I was relieved to find people trying to change what I thought was unchangeable….You see I thought that the people in those demonstrations on television were extraordinary people like Martin Luther King Jr. but they are ordinary college kids and old people.
Yes, Daddy, I am brainwashed like you said; brainwashed by the fact that I’m black and I have nothing to lose in this fight against the chains that bound me and my people. Going to college, living in a comfortable house, having clothes, even being able to get a job in New York is not going to change the fact that I’m a black girl in a white man’s country and I have nothing to lose by fighting racism. Sure I can teach in New York, but that isn’t enough. The system is corrupt all over. It shortchanges the Negro and Puerto Rican kids and provides better schooling for the white kids. If I taught I could change one school, one classroom. But in the movement I can help bring about more basic changes which can allow me to go back to the South that I love and live there with my friends, white and black, building a new world and living a life with meaning…this is what I went to college for…I was a history major because I wanted to make as well as teach history.
Barbara Jones Omolade’s letter reminds us that the successes of King were built by the scaffolding of thousands of people who were LinkedIn into a network of hope, who refused to settle for cynicism. Who refused to allow their towns, their schools, their colleges and universities, their government settle for the narrow-minded interest of the status quo. The women, the deacons, the disabled, the timid, the outcasts, the poor, those with unpopular views that had made them outcasts in their own communities participated in a national hackathon for justice and the world has never been the same.

Barbara Jones Omolade, “Building a New World” in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p.388-392.
So today I have a tweet!  Martin Luther King’s tweet for America in 140 characters: “Not the media or man that makes a movement but the message of the messengers, not the number of characters but the content of character. #mlk

The Mis-Digitization of the Negro

The lack of an authentic technological education is developing a false consciousness among black folk (and others). Technology is good for a lot of things but it is not a cure-all to improve relationships, address inequality, and dismantle institutional barriers to progress. In the last 10 years, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields have been presented as providing the solution to nearly every problem of the future. Educators emphasizing the continuing relevance of humanities and arts have been sidelined to focus on the promise of future technological development. In our rush to get ready for the digital universe of tomorrow, how well do we really understand the complex racial challenges of today? Are our future technologies truly being engineered to address abiding concerns of relationships, inequality, and institutional racism or are they merely providing new tools to perpetuate the existing barriers?

Technology is an important factor in our world. Our interaction with technology molds and manipulates our thinking process in ways that we are only beginning to understand. In our obsession to accomplish more with ease and efficiency, is it possible that our optimism with digital technology has compromised our understanding of what hardship actually is? Is signing a digital petition, liking a facebook page, or tweeting 120 characters of disapproval, the equivalent of a sit-in, a protest march, or a boycott?


When Carter G. Woodson penned Mis-Education of the Negro in 1933, he feared that the lack of an authentic black history hampered the development and advancement of the nation and a people. Woodson argued that by controlling a person’s thoughts, one could control his actions. While Woodson’s fears centered on the lack of an authentic knowledge of the past, today we look to two continuing extremes of mis-education that are particularly harmful to the African Diaspora.

On the one hand, we inhabit a nation and a world that is much more open to the study of black history than it was during Woodson’s time, yet millions of blacks (and others) still find themselves mis-educated about the continuing relevance of race and inequality in in global development. In our push to substitute the digital for the analog, machines over meanings, we have simply abandoned our study of social ills and not resolved them.

Equally troubling is the fact that some of the nation’s brightest graduates (black and non-black), similar to the ones that Woodson wrote about in Mis-Education, have talents that are not effectively applied because they lack an understanding of the complexity of the problems encountered in our society. In this regard, various high-tech educational achievements have deceived otherwise brilliant folk into believing that machines exist outside of culture. Instead of seeing the development of machines as alloys of the economic, political, and cultural substrate of the time, we see them instead as extraterrestrial devices that have been summoned to save humanity.

More troubling still, our unconscious adoption of technology impacts our thinking process not only about what is possible but why certain challenges remain. Technology shifts our focus from what should be done to what can be done. This trade-off has its merits but also comes with a cost. We have watched as a generation have backslid into simple-minded exhortations on the race question that were discredited more than a generation ago. What good is it to have highly educated, technologically talented citizens if they are no more able to discern and dismantle strategies of disenfranchisement than sharecroppers less than one generation removed from slavery? Technological study is only useful if it elevates the mind to confront and solve the challenges of a racially-hostile architecture.

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