Cyber-racism – it doesn’t just happen to footballers

Susan Cousins, Senior Advisor, Race Religion and Belief at Cardiff University, shares psychological insights following a racist online attack. Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne asks the questions.

You’ve very recently been on the receiving end of racist abuse on Twitter. How did you feel when you first saw those tweets?
Initially, the tweets left me feeling numb. A survivalist mentality kicked in; one that I recognise from a much earlier age. Although this was my first experience of cyber-racism it was by no means the first time I’ve been called the N word. 

How I experience cyber-racism feels the same as my experience of racism offline – I am thrown off balance in a public space, and my safety feels threatened. My responses nearly always follow a pattern, manifesting in withdrawal from the individuals and blanking out the words of hate. I held myself accountable for forgetting to check everyone who follows me and blocking any slightly suspicious accounts. I held myself accountable for my lack of vigilance where vigilance has always been my greatest friend; it has so often kept me safe both on and offline. I was never naïve enough to think I could write a book like Overcoming Everyday Racism, talk about race on Twitter and not be abused.

On a personal level, dealing with other people’s discomfort and regulating other people’s feelings is one of the most difficult aspects of the experience of racism. Generally, I try to determine the safest person to talk to – who will put aside their outrage and anger? These are, after all, emotions that I don’t feel entitled enough or safe enough to express. And then I must think about who will come at me with a lukewarm response and a shrug of the shoulders sprinkled with elements of blame. So, finding the right person to confide in and who sits somewhere in between these two extremes is a worthwhile endeavour.

Next came my concern that this was a strategic and organised form of cyber-racism with possible links to far-right extremism; people who have relinquished their identity and responsibility, out to inflict the most severe degree of harm. This is beyond disinhibition. Social media platforms offer up anonymity at the expense of others. 

For you, Twitter became a source of support, as well as the source of your abuse.
Yes, and I guess I find that comforting in the sense that it’s not loaded with emotion. I can distance myself from what other people are experiencing; it carries less hurt because the relationships exist in a space that’s not real and yet real in a different way. 

Face-to-face conversations are where the hurt finds a home, and where I will avoid any relational depth that leaves me confused and stranded on someone else’s beach. I didn’t have to go out and look for the right person, the right kind of support came from my wonderful Twitter contacts and suddenly I felt less alone with it, less shut down and more engaged in considering what actions I might take. I was heard and the noise didn’t drown out my own responses, but validated and acknowledged the experience without taking up the space.

The strenuous level of coping comes at a cost. We cannot discard the skins we’re living in as we’re thrown against everyday racism. 

Was there anything that surprised you about your immediate response to this online attack? 
I guess what surprised me was thinking about the form of the attack. Was this a single person or a group of people? Was it a co-ordinated group engaging in sinister and dehumanising forms of communication?

Did your feelings evolve over the hours and days after the abuse? 
I’ve survived both physical and verbal racial attacks that have limited my life in many ways, and the limits I place on myself are all about safety. I think there is an intersectional element to my experience as a woman and as someone who walks with a dark skin. And because my immediate concerns involve safety, I tend to emotionally react days after the abuse. When a certain amount of time has passed, I’m reminded of similar events in my life and often live through some of these events. I find it almost impossible to talk to some white people about it. Talking to you Annie is a very different experience because we have built up a relationship and worked together before. In addition, it's important for me to share any insight I might gather from these experiences in the hope of raising awareness within the wider community. 

I prefer to process my feelings through writing and through thinking how I can make a difference to other people who experience racism, in particular children and young people. This is what keeps me strong. I learnt from a very young age not to talk to white people about these incidents (although I do when I feel safe, connected and understood). I found that harm was piled on more harm and I was better off alone. My role at Cardiff University, Senior Advisor, Race Religion and Belief, and my book, is different because it’s driven by the desire to change and support people of colour (POC). It’s about the progress we need to make towards social justice in many areas of our society, but this work rarely touches my emotions and my deepest feelings about what it is to be a child and an adult of colour in the UK. I don’t share that with anyone. I find power in keeping my own counsel and not spewing out words that will not necessarily land in a place of safety.

Has the abuse impacted how you intend to engage on Twitter?
As far as Twitter is concerned, I will keep my options open, and I will most likely go back to careful checking. It’s harder for POC to be online. It involves the same level of vigilance that I carry into all areas of my life – there are few spaces I feel I can inhabit safely. I find my home and family a solace and the one truly safe space – so I put quite an effort into nurturing and being creative within that space. Plants, artwork and just the everyday aspects that living requires make up the small pleasures that ground me to my place on this planet.

What can the psychology community learn from your experiences?
For practitioners, be they psychologists, counsellors, GPs etc., I would like them to: 

  • Acknowledge themselves as racial beings with a particular and possibility limited perspective on race, and to acknowledge where they hold power in the encounter as they are likely to have a white group experience of race.
  • Understand that the experience of cyber-racism will affect individuals in completely different ways depending on many factors such as a previous history of experiences of racism, the social context and the support available.
  • Explore and not assume a certain reaction or response.
  • Listen with respect and put aside their own emotional reactions to create an authentic space where the practitioner’s feelings of guilt, anger, dismissal and outrage are firmly placed to one side.
  • Be aware that their responses may come from a place of entitlement – they may feel entitled to be angry and to express that anger, whereas POC will be judged for expressing strong emotions about their experience of racism.
  • Take a history of previous events across that person’s lifetime and take note of these emerging accounts.
  • Map out previous survival strategies and find out what works and what hasn’t worked.
  • Situate the personal story within the current social context.
  • Ensure that further opportunities are offered to talk about the abuse. Allow people to tell and re-tell their story.
  • Ask if they know how others have responded.
  • Normalise the need to adjust and limit behaviour to stay safe.
  • Let the target make a choice as to the level of anger, hurt and trauma experienced. And to move through that at their own pace.
  • Understand that the desire to shrug off incidents of racism is common, and again this may be down to many factors and not only denial; they may have protective factors in place or have dealt with it so many times that it ceases to make an impact.
  • Consider a practical approach and signpost to available areas of support, and suggest websites that may offer specific support on cyber-racism.
  • Be alert to how race intersects with other protected characteristics.
  • Discuss the option of involving the police.

How did you personally make the decision to involve the police, and what has that process been like?
It wasn't a difficult decision for me to make because although we can never be sure that a case will be taken up by the crown prosecution service, I know that reporting in itself provides the police with intelligence and levels of knowledge about what is happening – in this case, what is happening on Twitter. I also have no expectations of a conviction but at least I feel I have taken a stand against racism. My main hope is that I will encourage others to do so. I personally feel empowered reporting, although the process can be upsetting and demanding. In some sense, it feels like it would be easier to forget about it and just get on with life – but that will enable the perpetrators to continue, and the police can do nothing without evidence of hate crime. It's a no brainer. The police have taken this extremely seriously and I would expect nothing less.

-        Susan Cousins works in equality, diversity and inclusion at Cardiff University, and is the author of Overcoming Everyday Racism: Building Resilience and Wellbeing in the Face of Discrimination and Microaggressions (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

-        Read our Q&A with Susan about the book

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