How to respond when the Internet calls you names

@shawnpwilliams Yeah, you're a dumb n****r.

When I read these words written by a stranger last week, I wasn’t sure how to react. It wasn’t the first time I’d been called the n-word, but it was in a place that I least expected it -- on Twitter.

Over the years, I’ve received plenty of racially charged emails based on my columns and blog posts. The comment sections of my websites can be cesspools of bigotry and intolerance. And as the recollection of my college days slowly fade, I still vividly remember the first time I was called an “N” as a freshman in a grocery store parking lot.

One of the comforting and ironically sad things about social media is that we tend to friend and follow people that we already have a lot in common with. We spend most of the day “liking” or retweeting things we see from people who think like us or look like us. We cosign on thoughts and ideas that tend to re-enforce our personal beliefs.

It was in that very place where a person who I didn’t know called me out of my name, potentially in front of the entire Internet. I assume he was upset with my commentary on the Republican presidential debate that night, but I really wasn’t sure.

What should I do? Do I respond with some sort of harsh and clever attack to show that I wasn’t afraid of his hate speech? I could just let it slide, chalk it up to ignorance and act like the whole thing never happened.

After taking a few minutes to calm down and breathe, I decided to just share the racist tweet with my followers, along with the words “this is what we’re up against.”

As far as I knew it was over, and I had probably let the guy off easy.  Yet as someone who continues to have an abundance of faith in the Internet to do more good than harm, I saw a tweeter (again someone I didn’t know) call out the offending party, a student at a state college in the Midwest. The tweeter also referred to the guy's fraternity, which appears in his bio.

By the next day, I received an apology via email from the president of the Intrafraternity Council at the guy's school. The student in question tweeted his own apology: "I am sorry for my words last night, it was late and I was in over my head. Truly I do not view myself as a racist."

He followed that up with an email which spoke to how badly he felt and how poorly his actions reflected on the organizations to which he belongs.

Some of my own followers had my back too:

GetItGirlStyle - @shawnpwilliams YOU are a good man to take that apology and I dont even know what he said.

The hate speech casually spewed by this young man has become acceptable in many circles. Inflammatory rhetoric is reaching a fever pitch as Republicans search for a presidential nominee. We hear code phrases that assert blacks youth need to be hired as janitors and make African-Americans synonymous with welfare and food stamps.

I'm ashamed to admit my surprise at how our political differences have become so severe that still today a college student would choose to drop the n-word on the grandson of a World War I veteran. That the divide is so great, a sitting governor feels well within her right to wave her finger in the face of the grandson of a World War II veteran who happens to be President of the United States.

While the thought of both actions infuriate me, I’m saddened by how these acts are rewarded. A Congressman who breaks with House decorum and yells “you lie” to President Obama is able to parlay blatant disrespect into political donations. And Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was able to turn her heated conversation with the president into an increase in book sales.

As for my Twitter hater, I accepted the guy’s apology. Part of me wishes I had fought his fire with a flamethrower. I could have tried to shame the guy and his fraternity and college.I could have thrown up links to the tweet and asked my followers to make a big deal about it.

But frankly, shaming a college student by adding to the toxic tone of our national discourse won't solve anything. As politicians and pundits continue to drag us towards the gutter, it's up to the rest of us to rise above the fray, possibly dragging some unwitting combatants with us.

Shawn Williams is founder and editor of Dallas South News and a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board.


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