In recent weeks a groundswell of protest against racism in America has played out in both the real world and social media. Mobile phones, social media accounts, photographs, and videos, played a vital role in exposing and countering systemic oppression. Such concerns might seem somewhat different from the usual ‘online learning struggles’, but in truth, it is in the midst of all of it, as it highlights the struggle for Educational Justice and the importance of technologies in changing these problems for the better.
According to David J. Leonard and Safiya Umoja Noble’s essay “Black Student Lives Matter: Online Technologies and the Struggle for Educational Justice”, black students continue to learn in an anti-black environment. Thus, they see the need to take their voices to a virtual street to be heard and to protest the injustice they face, laying bare the emptiness of the rhetoric of inclusion into college communities. This, and the wider national political atmosphere, inspired students to mobilize their voice on social media, which in turn, built bridges to the less fortunate black neighborhoods outside the campus walls, posting real-time events that transcend the old media and its editorial lines. For example, to connect to protests in Ferguson following the killing of Mike Brown, students at Harvard and Howard University circulated photos of themselves doing the “HandsUpDontShoot pose”.
In higher education, equal opportunities and diversity advertised by universities are often little more than brochure topics to attract students and showcase a ‘post-racial’ harmony. However, social media, through stories of minorities showing a different side of the learning space, can provide a different side of the equation. In America, “almost 1 Million students of all color experience racially and ethnically based violence, which includes verbal aggression, harassing phone calls, and other types of psychological intimidation each year”, a study is quoted. The students that experience these types of discrimination are deeply affected as a recent study from Northwestern University, under the name ‘Psychological and Biological Responses to Race-Based Social Stress as Pathways to Disparities in Educational Outcomes’, suggests that the stress of racial discrimination may partly explain the persistent gaps in academic performance between some non-white students, mainly black and Latino youth, and their white counterparts.
Social media help students reach a wider and different audience, generating bigger support and interest to the cause, hence becoming a powerful player when demanding reforms from a rather reluctant administration that tries to silence their voices to protect the illusion of ‘post-racial’ harmonic community where race is no longer an issue to encounter. Also, it provides a push forward for other discriminated students not only racially, but for reasons of religion or gender, etc. that might feel intimidated by the notion of activism, protesting and demanding change, to follow their footsteps and open a meaningful virtual discussion under one hashtag movement that might eventually lead to organizing significant events in real life. Social media is a legible space of protest, and it is pivotal in making visible the crises facing Black college students and their efforts at social change.
Although social media and technology help create a feeling of community and collective identity, it also starts with an individual’s narrative that emphasizes their humanity and agency, offering them a voice to contribute to issues that are hard to voice on campus ground by oneself. Thus, attracting more people with the same challenges to speak out and create a shared experience. It also provides anonymity as you can speak out using an alias, which gives a ‘sense of security’ and de-stress.
Back in Germany, social media activism and communities are not as wide-spread as in the US. Such lightweight social media presence could be explained by the existence of counseling programs on the ground, for instance, ‘Diversity and Equality Counselling’, that make an effort to tackle all types of discrimination happening at the university. Also, I think challenges in Germany for example as opposed to the US are more politically focused rather than social problems.
That being said, social media is an open space where one can demand reform, fight injustice, and seek positive change on the ground, but also a powerful tool of suppression, bullying, violence, and a perpetuation of injustice. In most cases, it depends on which side of the spectrum you sit. It marks who is an ally to the cause, but also who is on the flip side of the coin.
Finally, technology has opened new mechanisms to approach activism and helped the less fortunate to amplify their voice and share their most vulnerable side. Hoping to make a change that would impact their lives as individuals. But still, the ‘old fashion’ activism taken to the streets is more efficient at challenging the injustice. However, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, instead, it means they complement each other, working hand in hand for a better future.