On December 6, 2013, nineteen year old Flora Coquerel was crowned Miss France 2014. The daughter of a French father and Beninese mother, Coquerel’s coronation was cause for an explosion of hateful tweets that began within moments of her victory. In response to Coquerel’s initial declaration “Je suis très fière de représenter une France cosmopolite” (“I am very proud to represent a multicultural France”), the Twitter-user @tdechampagn seemed to capture the xenophobic spirit of the backlash by writing, “Le métissage est le cancer de la race blanche” (“Racial mixture is the cancer of the white race”).
The news came to me as an unfortunate déjà vu, a repeat of what happened when Nina Davuluri won the Miss America pageant in September. Among other things, Twitter-users repeatedly mistook the Indian-American for an Arab, and accused her of being a terrorist. Similarly, Coquerel was called a monkey, and was said to have won the contest by riding on the coattails of Nelson Mandela’s recent death. Both beauty queens were accused of winning their respective pageants because organizers were unduly concerned with projecting an image of diversity to the outside world.
Now, to be frank, I really could not care less about who wins and loses these kinds of contests. To me they reek of vanity and spectacularly false pretenses. I’ll assume that both Coquerel and Davuluri deserved their crowns and that they beat out their competition fair and square. Similarly, I won’t waste time here trying to disprove the notions of white supremacy that underpin the backlash these two women suffered for their achievements. Much of the response to Davuluri and Coquerel’s victories is of course disgusting. But beyond that, the response was rather confounding, due to the setting in which it took place: Twitter. Here I wonder: Is Twitter a legitimate venue of public discourse? If so, what are its rules of engagement? Should we be more willing to tolerate virtual hate speech than its concrete, uttered counterpart? At the end of the day, how can one effectively respond to the news that “#shame” and “#Blackni**er” were among France’s highest trending hastags on the night that Coquerel’s took her prize?
The optimist in me wants to find some signs of progress in the hateful tweets launched against Coquerel and Davuluri. To that effect, we should first differentiate Twitter from the echo chambers of comment boxes, where anonymous trolls often lurk underneath the bridges of online communication. Like Facebook, Twitter is a platform where one’s words are almost always backed by a real-world identity. And in that respect, social media platforms are indeed venues of public discourse, however unconventional. Twitter is not a roundtable around which citizens gather for careful and nuanced negotiations of vivre-ensemble, however. Thanks to its terms of usage, the conversations that Twitter produces are much faster and more fragmented than that.
Let’s assume that I am an average young member of Western society (if such a thing exists). Something happens in the real world in which I see some part of myself reflected and implicated to a significant degree. Naturally, I feel the need to exercise my democratic right to record a public response. So I reach for my phone, type off a quick post that captures the essence of my thinking on the matter, tack on a couple of hashtags to further articulate my thought, hit send, and wait for the “likes” and re-tweets without which I would not feel entirely validated. The whole process generally takes less than sixty seconds and can be repeated ad nauseum. If I fail to think before I tweet, I can easily end up publishing a comment that would have been best reserved for a private laugh with close friends, and have to then reckon with the ramifications.
This is exactly what happened to @JAyres15 when she wrote, “I swear I’m not racist but this is America” just a few minutes after Davuluri’s crowning. A few hours later her tweet ended up on BuzzFeed’s list of people that were “very upset” with the pageant’s result. The next day, after being called out in dozens of tweets for her comment, she wrote: “I am so sorry. I didn’t think before I tweeted what I did. I absolutely did not mean to hurt or offend anyone. Again I am SO very sorry!!” By the end of the day, however, Ms. Ayres had permanently deleted her account.
Stepping away from the world of beauty queens for a moment, we can see that this sort of thing happens all the time. In a recent article for The Washington Post, my friend Clinton Yates comments on a tweet that @CarolinaGirlDC shot off a few weeks ago after having missed her Metro stop on the city’s green line, known otherwise by some locals as “the hood line.” The tweet read: “Somehow ended up in anacostia. Must pay attention on the metro. #fear #whatthe #gulp #yikes #helpme.” According to her account’s avatar, @CarolinaGirlDC is, like @JAyres15, a white woman. Meanwhile, Anacostia is generally known as one of Chocolate City’s rougher areas. If we want to, we can easily infer the racist and xenophobic attitudes present in @CarolinaGirlDC’s tweets, but her several frivolous hashtags appear to me as greater evidence of a hasty joke made in poor taste. Like @JAyres15, @CarolinaGirlDC spent some time trying to apologize and explain herself after being blasted by the Twittersphere, but eventually got fed up, deleting the tweet in question before turning her account into a private one. This in turn led Yates to lamentingly conclude, “Rather than engaging in the discussion that she created herself, and even hashtagged with the words ‘#helpme,’ she reneged, and shut down open two way conversation. The irony there is that if she really wanted help, which would have meant learning that all people East of the River are not trying to hurt you, she might have opened herself up to talk to more people about the matter, not less.”
As the geniuses behind “Avenue Q” put it, everyone—yes, everyone, including me and you—is (at least) a little bit racist. Scientific studies support this conclusion, as does a bit of careful introspection. One of Western civilization’s most pressing and enduring problems is our fundamental inability to render this fact constructive through conversation. Call someone a racist based off a misguided comment, and you’re barely a half-step behind calling them a neo-Nazi. In that sense, I can understand why @JAyres15 and @CarolinaGirlDC would choose to disconnect from the uncomfortable discourse they started; the Internet makes it tremendously easy to do so.
While Twitter’s chaotic nature lets us peek into pernicious strains of thought that go mostly unarticulated in our supposedly “post-racial” society, it also makes the site a less-than-ideal platform for exchanging ideas. In and of themselves, hateful tweets are symptoms, not causes, of individual intolerance. As such, they generally do not present great opportunities for converting the closed-minded. The exceptions are generally the result of poor wording, which can only be addressed by responses that refuse the temptation to vilify.
Shame on those who used their Twitter accounts to call Flora Coquerel a ni**er and Nina Davuluri an operative of Al-Qaeda. But I save a shred of pity for those who do not yet understand that social media enables one’s ignorant impulses to be so easily mistaken for deliberate bigotry. Unquestioning vilification only serves to compound the problem it seeks to solve. As technology continues its un-halting progress, and more computers find their way into kids’ classrooms and front pockets, only time will tell if schools and parents can raise youngsters to be upstanding and understanding cybercitizens.
 AKA my hometown, Washington DC