Category Archives: Culture

Emma Watson: Van kind-celebrity tot opkomende publieke intellectueel

Dit essay is onderdeel van het vak Retorica in het Publieke Debat (Jaar 1 Bachelor Online Culture: Art, Media and Society aan Tilburg Universiteit).  

In mei 2017 ontving Emma Watson (1990) de eerste ‘sekseneutrale’ MTV Movie & MTV Award voor beste acteur en actrice voor haar rol als Belle in Disney’s film ‘Beauty and the Beast’. De televisiezender maakte voor de eerste keer geen onderscheid tussen de seksen en erkende slechts één categorie waarin zowel acteurs als actrices kans maken op de prijs. Watson moedigde de keuze om de award ‘sekseneutraal’ te maken aan: ‘MTV’s move to create a genderless award for acting will mean something different to everyone. But to me it indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories’ (MTV, 2017). Watson’s motivatie om MTV’s beslissing aan te moedigen vindt haar oorsprong in haar kritische kijk op gender(on)gelijkheid.

Al als negenjarig meisje ontwikkelde Watson haar beroemdheidsstatus en staat zij sindsdien vooral bekend als het karakter Hermelien Griffel in de Harry Potter filmserie. Naast haar succesvolle carrière als actrice waarmee zij verschillende prijzen heeft gewonnen, heeft zij modellenwerk gedaan voor onder andere Elle Magazine en Vogue. Ook is ze actief in de mode industrie en werd ze benoemd tot Elle Style Icon in 2011 (Thompson, 2011). Bovendien won zij de British Fashion Award in 2014 (British Fashion Council, 2014). Haar identiteit als populaire beroemdheid is hiermee compleet. Desondanks is Watson meer dan enkel een celebrity functionerend in de entertainmentindustrie. Zo houdt zij zich al meerdere jaren bezig met de empowerment van vrouwen en probeert zij de boodschap over te brengen dat feminisme niet enkel een vrouwenkwestie is. Hiermee neemt het concept ‘celebrity’ een andere plek in dan men gewend is. Het beeld dat men over het algemeen heeft van een celebrity is een persoon die enkel bekendheid heeft in de entertainment industrie. Echter laten celebrities zoals Watson zien dat de celebrity een hybride figuur is en zich kan mengen in maatschappelijke debatten.

Op 20 september 2014 gaf Emma Watson haar bekendste speech, ‘Gender equality is your issue too’, voor de HeForShe campagne in het Hoofdkwartier van de Verenigde Naties in New York. In deze speech voorzag zij nieuwe perspectieven met betrekking tot feminsime. Hier ontving zij een groot applaus van zowel de VN-toehoorders als een virtueel applaus. Watson is nieuw in het publieke debat en staat nog met name bekend als populaire actrice. Toch lijkt zij bekendheid te hebben verworven als een veelbelovende jonge vrouw in het wereldwijde debat over gender(on)gelijkheid. Op deze manier lijkt ze haar beroemdheidsstatus te overschrijden. Op welke manier functioneert Emma Watson in het publieke debat?

Theoretisch kader

In Writers as Public Intellectuals: Literature, Celebrity, Democracy (2016), reflecteert Odile Heynders op schrijvers die als publieke intellectuelen functioneren in het publieke debat. Hierbij biedt Heynders een definitie van het concept ‘publieke intellectueel’:

‘The public intellectual intervenes in the public debate and proclaims a controversial and committed and sometimes compromised stance from a sideline position. He has critical knowledge and ideas, stimulates discussion and offers alternative scenarios in regard to topics of political, social and ethical nature, thus addressing non-specialist audiences on matters of general concern’ (Heynders, 2016, p. 3).

Hierbij uit Heynders het te gemakkelijk te vinden om de media te beschouwen als slechte invloeden op intellectuelen. Hierbij gaat zij in tegen Bourdieu’s en Habermas’ traditionele (pessimistische) ideeën met betrekking tot de relatie tussen deze media en intellectuelen. Zij leggen met name de nadruk op dat ‘mixing of the rational discourse and self-promotion of the intellectual leads to a loss of differentiation and to the assimilation of public and private roles’ (Heynders, 2016, p. 12). Heynders nuanceert deze traditionele kijk door de media van een andere, positivie manier te belichten:

‘Bourdieu’s and Habermas’ rather nostalgic perspectives, I argue in this book, can be nuanced when taking a closer look at the various and diverse strategies that are used in the media-saturated public sphere with interactive radio and television formats and the emergence of social media such as the Web 2.0 and the blogosphere’ (Heynders, 2016, pp. 11-12).

Met betrekking tot het schijnbare contrast tussen de publieke intellectueel en de celebrity meent zij dat het onjuist is om te beweren dat de publieke intellectueel kennis deelt met het publiek, terwijl de celebrity enkel amusement te bieden heeft. Volgens Heynders kan een publieke intellectueel namelijk zowel in het intellectuele milieu als het celebrity milieu functioneren (Heynders, 2016, pp. 13-15). Heynders beschrijft de ‘celebrity intellectual’ als iemand die dient als ‘an allegory of the triumph of mass commodity and mass consumption, readers, audiences, and fans’ (Jaffe and Goldman, 2010, p. 9), and offers an interpretative paradigm focussing on self-fashioning and theatricality as the negotiation of rational thinking, attention and life style’ (Heynders, 2016: p. 15). Het punt dat zij wil maken rond de discussie over de publieke intellectueel en de beroemdheid, is dat ‘we have to nuance the idea of the public intellectual only as an homme des lettres, and realise that the persona of the intellectual never is a disembodied one, one the contrary, it is connected to visible features and manners’ (Heynders, 2016: p. 15). Uitgaande van deze kijk, wordt het mogelijk om bepaalde celebrities te analyseren als publieke intellectuelen. Dit essay analyseert in hoeverre de celebrity Emma Watson functioneert als een publieke intellectueel.

Om het analyseren van een publieke intellectueel realiseerbaar te maken, presenteert Heynders een methodologie voor de analyse van de verscheidene activiteiten en rollen van een publieke intellectueel. Hierbij onderscheidt ze vier elementen in een schema (Heynders, 2016, p. 21):

  1. Cultural authority: ‘The PI has ideas, cultural authority and credentials, and the talent to give a broad, contestable, popularising and new perspective on issues of general concern’
  2. Social and cultural context: ‘The PI operates in a specific (trans)national, societal and economic context, which provides a narrative frame that is used as well as criticized
  3. Mediated context of production and reception: ‘The PI introduces an issue, using the appropriate media, and a particular rhetoric (style of arguing and framing)
  4. Aesthetic performance and theatricality: ‘The PI implements aesthetic features in text and performance, and consciously creates a persona in the media with an effect on audience’

Geleid door Heynder’s kader wordt het mogelijk om erachter te komen in hoeverre Emma Watson als een publieke intellectueel kan worden beschouwd. Hierbij wordt gebruikt gemaakt van Watson’s speech ‘Gender equality is your issue too’. Voor de tweede en derde elementen, met name retorica, worden ook de inzichten uit Sam Leith’s boek Are You Talking To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (2012) ingezet.

Cultural authority

Emma Watson’s status als actrice heeft haar academische prestaties en het werk waarin zij armoede en genderongelijkheid bestrijdt grotendeels overschaduwd. Al een aantal jaren heeft zij zich bezig gehouden met het promoten van onderwijs voor jonge vrouwen wereldwijd. Zo is zij werkzaam geweest als ambassadeur voor Camfed International, een beweging die zich inzet voor het onderwijzen van jonge vrouwen in de binnenlanden van Afrika. Daarnaast is zij in 2009 Engelse literatuur aan de Brown Universiteit in Rhode Island gaan studeren. In 2014 mocht zij haar bachelor in ontvangst nemen. Vrijwel direct na het behalen van haar diploma, werd zij benoemd als UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. Sindsdien houdt zij zich tot de dag van vandaag bezig met gelijke rechten voor mannen en vrouwen wereldwijd. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, de adjunct-secretaris-generaal van de Verenigde Naties en uitvoerend bestuurder van UN Women, benoemde haar op deze functie met enthousiasme: ‘The engagement of young people is critical for the advancement of gender equality in the 21st century, and I am convinced that Emma’s intellect and passion will enable UN Women’s messages to reach the hearts and minds of young people globally’ (UN Women, 2014). Als ambassadeur houdt zij wereldwijd speeches en heeft zij onder andere werk verricht in Malawi om het belang van het beëindigen van kinderhuwelijken onder aandacht te brengen (Press Release, 2016). Ook leverde zij een petitie af in Uruguay, ondertekend door 4000 mensen, waarin het Uruguayaanse parliament verzocht werd om vrouwen meer mogelijkheden te geven in de politiek (Emma Watson Touched, 2014). Dankzij Watson’s verrichtingen en gedurfde, slimme kijk op feminisme werd ze benoemd tot één van de ‘100 Most Influential People’ door Time Magazine (Sherwell & Lawler, 2015).

Heynders (2015, pp. 21-22) definieert culturele autoriteit als ‘the prestige based on an (academic) education or specialisation, but it can also refer to artistic achievements, to a body of work’. Hieraan voegt zij toe dat ‘not every intellectual is an academic, but all of them are men of lettres, meaning that they write and put their ideas into words’. Met betrekking tot educatie beschikt Watson over culturele autoriteit, maar omtrent haar schrijversschap scoort zij minder. Zo heeft zij geen literair werk op haar naam staan. Echter weet zij haar ideeën op een andere manier ‘op papier’ te zetten. Via sociale media – met name Twitter – en haar website ‘Our Shared Shelf’ zorgt zij voor wereldwijde discussies rondom gender(on)gelijkheid. ‘Our Shared Shelf’ is een online boekenclub, waarin Watson maandelijks boeken en essays gerelateerd aan gender(on)gelijkheid deelt met de rest van de wereld. Dit toont aan dat Watson het belang van literatuur in haar werk wel inziet:

‘As part of my work with UN Women, I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on. There is so much amazing stuff out there! Funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking, empowering! I’ve been discovering so much that, at times, I’ve felt like my head was about to explode… I decided to start a Feminist book club, as I want to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts too’ (Watson, z.j.).

Een groot deel van Watson’s Twitter account is zelf-promotie, maar daarnaast gebruikt zij het sociale medium als instrument om haar perspectieven op gender(on)gelijkheid te uiten en de discussie warm te houden. Zo tweette Watson (2014): ‘Gender equality not only liberates women but also men from prescribed gender stereotypes. #heforshe’. Deze tweet is meer dan 26.000 gedeeld en heeft bijna 33.000 likes. Uit Waton’s online gedrag blijkt dat ze bewust is van de bruikbaarheid van internet en sociale media als het gaat om het uitwisselen van informatie en discussie op grote schaal.  Zoals eerder genoemd, nuanceert Heynders Bourdieu’s en Habermas’ pessimisme rondom de media. Als conclusie beweert Heynders (2016, p. 176) dat internet – met name Twitter en blogs in online kranten – publieke intellectuelen kunnen  voorzien van ‘an additional instrument to reach and communicate with the audience(s), by writing a blog or tweet and linking it to other on- or offline editions of articles and messages’.

Dankzij Watson’s universitaire opleiding, werk voor de VN en online discussies heeft zij culturele autoriteit. Maar Watson mist literaire werken, die erg belangrijk zijn voor de culturele autoriteit van een publieke intellectueel. Al met al kan er geconcludeerd worden dat Watson’s culturele autoriteit niet ideaal is.

Social and cultural context

Heynders (2016, p. 22) meent dat ‘the aim of the public intellectual is to enhance critical discussion within a public sphere with a specific public or counter-public’. Middels Saids stelling legt zij er de nadruk op dat dit een ‘political aim’ is: ‘if you want not to be political, do not write essays or speak out’ (Said, geciteerd in Heynders, 2016, p. 22).

Watson’s werkt sinds 2014 met name vanuit de HeForShe campagne van de UN Women, waarvan het doel is om mannen en jongens aan te moedigen om actie te ondernemen tegen de ongelijke behandeling van vrouwen en meisjes wereldwijd. Aangezien gender(on)gelijkheid voornamelijk een politieke kwestie is en de VN een intergouvernementele organisatie is, neemt Watson direct een politieke rol in. Via speeches en humanitaire hulp in derde wereldlanden vanuit de VN en online uitingen werkt zij op een internationaal niveau. Dit niveau uit zich ook in haar speech ‘Gender equality is your issue too’, waarbij mensen met verschillende nationaliteiten in de zaal zaten en waarnaar miljoenen mensen online geluisterd hebben (de speech is meer dan twee miljoen keer bekeken op YouTube).

Tijdens de speech maakt Watson gebruik van ethos om het publiek te overtuigen. Ethos is één van de drie kenmerken van de retorische speech. Leith (2012, p. 47) omschrijft ethos als ‘the way a speaker establishes – both overtly and more subtly – his bona fides as a speaker and his connection with the audience’. Aan het begin van de speech blikt Watson terug op enkele persoonlijke ervaringen uit haar jeugd die laten zien op welke manier genderongelijkheid deel heeft uitgemaakt in haar leven:

‘I started questioning gender-based assumptions when at eight I was confused at being called ‘bossy’, because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on our parents – but the boys were not. When at fourteen, I started being sexualized by certain elements of the press. When at fifteen, my girlfriends started dropping out of their sports teams because they didn’t want to appear muscly. When at eighteen, my male friends were unable to express their feelings’ (United Nations, 2014).

Door te spreken over verschillende persoonlijke ervaringen, weet Watson de persoonlijke wereld te verbinden aan de publieke wereld en zo het universele probleem genderongelijkheid aan te snijden. Hiermee, samen met het veldwerk in derde wereldlanden, kan zij als toegankelijk, geloofwaardig en eerlijk worden beschouwd.

Mediated context of production and reception

‘Every intellectual is aware of the rhetorical power of language, and knows that framing persuasive and effective speech, using or resisting doxa and stereotypes, and emphasising the sincerity of voice are crucial in bringing the message to the public’ (Heynders, 2016, p. 22). Retorica kan omschreven worden als de kunst van het overtuigen van de ander door middel van woorden. Naast ethos, identificeerde Aristotles twee andere kenmerken van de retorische speech: logos en pathos. Leith (2012, p. 57) omschrijft logos als ‘the way one point proceed to another as if to show that the conclusion to which you are aiming is not the only right one, but so necessary and reasonable as to be more or less the only one’ (Leith, 2012, p. 57). Daarnaast wordt pathos omschreven als ‘the appeal to emotion – not just sadness or pity…but excitement, fear, love, patriotism or amusement’ (Leith, 2012, p. 66).

Zoals eerder genoemd, is het doel van Watson’s speech om mannen en jongens te overtuigen om gendergelijkheid te verdedigen, in plaats van dat alleen vrouwen en meisjes dit doen. Met dat doel in gedachte opent Watson haar speech met de uitspraak dat ze hulp nodig heeft van haar toehoorders. Hiermee zorgt ze ervoor dat iedereen goed gaat luisteren naar wat ze te zeggen heeft. Ad Herennium, het oudste Latijnse boek over retorica, noemt dit gedeelte ‘exordium’. Dit is ‘the point at which you establish your bona fides as a speaker, grab the audience’s attention and hope to keep it. The strongest upfront ethos appeal will tend to come here’ (Leith, 2012, p. 82). Vervolgens beargumenteert zij, aan de hand van logos, dat feminisme te vaak als synoniem beschouwd wordt voor mannenhaat en dat dit direct zou moeten stoppen: ‘For the record, feminism by definiton is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes’ (United Nations, 2014). Door middel van dit harde, feitelijke argument valt ze haar tegenstanders aan die feminisme als mannenhaat beschouwen. Ad Herennium noemt het aanvallen van de argumenten van de tegenstander ‘refutation’ en het argument ‘proof’ (Leith, 2012, p. 83). Leith (2012, p. 48) beweert dat het belangrijkste element van ethos is dat ‘you will be seeking to persuade your audience that you are one of them: that you interests and their interests are identical’. Middels het delen van meerdere persoonlijke ervaringen met gender(on)gelijkheid, laat Watson weten dat zij niet boven het probleem staat, maar onderdeel is van het probleem. Verder, om het publiek te overtuigen, combineert zij logos met pathos om emoties op te wekken bij haar publiek:

‘I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help to fear it would make them looks less macho. In fact, in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49 years of age…I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefit of equality either’ (United Nations, 2014).

Wat opmerkelijk is aan haar speech, is dat zij verwijst naar haar identiteit als Hermelien Griffel: ‘You might be thinking, who is that Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN?…All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better’ (United Nations, 2014). Dit laat zien dat zij zich bewust is van haar beroemdheidsstatus, maar dat deze status los staat van haar werk bij de VN en zij oprechte bedoelingen heeft.

Ze einidigt haar speech met het aankondigen van het nieuwe initiatief HeForShe en het aanmoedigen van mannen om op te komen voor gendergelijkheid. Volgens Watson moeten wij ons allemaal dezelfde vraag stellen: ‘if not me, who? If not now, when?’ (United Nations, 2014).

Aesthetic performance and theatricality

 Volgens Heynders (2016, p. 23) moet de publieke intellectueel, in zowel de online als de offline wereld, zich altijd bewust zijn van wat hij voorstelt. Het gaat dus niet enkel om het werk dat de intellectueel gedaan heeft en de mooie woorden die hij of zij uitgesproken of opgeschreven heeft, maar ook om het voorkomen. Watson’s mode stijl wordt over het algemeen zeer gewaardeerd door de media, waardoor ze meerdere modeprijzen heeft ontvangen. Met haar chique jurken en pakken, vaak opgestoken haar en klassieke make-up stijl, kan Watson’s voorkomen vooral omschreven worden als elegant. Tijdens haar speech ‘Gender equality is your issue too’ was dit niet anders. Haar nette witte jurk met zilveren riempje en zwarte hakken benadrukken haar idee: iedereen kan feminist zijn. Het stereotype feminist als ‘slonzige’ vrouw in spijkerbroek die zich ‘mannelijk’ gedraagt wordt hiermee weerlegd. In deze speech is haar nerveusiteit van haar gezicht af te lezen. Ze is echter niet bang om zich hierover te uiten en zich zowel sterk als kwetsbaar op te stellen: ‘In my nervousness of this speech and in my moments of doubt, I’ve told myself firmly: if not me, who? If not now, when?’ (United Nations, 2014). Door zichzelf kwetsbaar op te stellen, breekt zij met de stereotyperende kijk op feministen als onbreekbare, steenharde vrouwen. Zowel mannen als vrouwen kunnen feministen zijn. Zowel kwetsbare als harde individueën kunnen feministen zijn. Iedereen kan feminist zijn.

Ondanks de waardering van de media voor Watson’s voorkomen, bracht een foto in het tijdschrift Vanity Fair waarin zij halfbloot poseerde haar geloofwaardigheid als feminist in gevaar. Vooral op Twitter ontstond hierdoor een ophef. Watson werd door vele twitteraars als ‘hypocriet’ en ‘anti-feminist’ bestempeld. Zo tweette columniste en presentator Julia Harley-Brewer (2016): ‘Emma Watson: ‘’Feminism, feminism… gender wage gap… why oh why am I not taken seriously… feminism… oh, and here are my tits!’ Watson sloeg echter hard terug en benadrukte opnieuw waar zij voor staat: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it’ (The Star Online, 2017). Met deze uitspraak zorgde ze ervoor dat het punt dat ze wil maken alleen maar versterkt werd. De uitspraak slaat namelijk precies op wat ze benoemde in haar speech: ‘I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body’ (United Nations, 2014). Veel media en mensen op sociale media juichten Watson toen alsnog toe.

Conclusie

Emma Watson zal altijd bekend staan als een celebrity functionerend in de entertainment industrie. Hoewel zij zich nog steeds veel bezig houdt met acteer- en modellenwerk, stapte zij uit deze wereld als het gaat om gender(on)gelijkheid en zet zij zich hiervoor voornamelijk in via de internationale HeForShe campagne van UN Women. Met haar academische achtergrond, verfrissende blik op gender(on)gelijkheid, retorische technieken en elegante voorkomen die haar ideeën versterken, scoort zij veel punten als publieke intellectueel. Wat zij echter mist, wat volgens Heynders van belang is voor een publieke intellectueel, zijn literaire werken. Wel uit Watson zich online ‘op papier’ via Twitter en haar feministische boekenclub ‘Our Shared Shelf’, waarmee zij verschillende platforms voor discussie creeërt en het belang van literatuur benadrukt. Watson is een veelzijdige jonge vrouw met een bachelor Engelse literatuur op zak die net nieuw is in het publieke debat. Dan hoeft het niet te worden uitgesloten dat haar naam ooit op literair werk komt te staan. ‘I still have so much to learn, but as a progress I hope to bring more of my individual knowledge, experience and awareness to this role,’ beaamt Watson (UN Women, z.j.). Haar status als publieke intellectueel mag dan (nog) niet honderd procent compleet zijn, maar met haar kwaliteiten en passie vormt zij een veelbelovende, opkomende publieke intellectueel in het debat over gender(on)gelijkheid.

References

 British Fashion Council. (2014, 2 december). Emma Watson – British Style Award – British Fashion Awards 2014 [Video file]. Geraadpleegd op https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPgqo19V7y0

Harley-Brewer, J. [JuliaHB1]. (2017, 1 maart). Emma Watson: ‘’Feminism, feminism… gender wage gap… why oh why am I not taken seriously… feminism… oh, and here are my tits!’’ [Tweet] Geraadpleegd op https://twitter.com/juliahb1/status/836873834414366720?lang=ca

Emma Watson ‘Touched’ By Uruguay Welcome (2014). Sky News. Geraadpleegd op http://news.sky.com/

Heynders, O. (2016) Writers as Public Intellectuals: Literature, Celebrity, Democracy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Leith, S. (2012). You Talking To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. London: Profile Books.

MTV. (2017, 7 mei). Emma Watson Accepts Best Actor in a Movie | MTV Movie & TV Awards [Video file]. Geraadpleegd op https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfDipz2Y-fA

Press Release: UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson shines spotlight on need to end child marriages (2016). UN Women. Geraadpleegd op http://www.unwomen.org/en

Sherwell, P. (2015). Time 100: Emma Watson makes first appearance in the world’s most influential list. The Telegraph. Geraadpleegd op http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

Thompson, J. (2011). Another night on the red carpet as Emma Watson rubs shoulders with fashionistas including Cheryl Cole and she’s named Style Icon at Elle Style Awards. Daily Mail Online. Geraadpleegd op http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/index.html

The Stars Online (2017, 4 maart). Emma Watson addresses Vanity Fair photo controversy [Video file]. Geraadpleegd op https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7OvCcxVlFo

United Nations (2014, 22 september). Emma Watson at the HeForShe Campaign 2014 – Official UN Video [Video file]. Geraadpleegd op https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkjW9PZBRfk

UN Women announces Emma Watson as Goodwill Ambassador (2014). UN Women. Geraadpleegd op http://www.unwomen.org/en

UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (z.j.). UN Women. Geraadpleegd op http://www.unwomen.org/en

Watson, E. [EmmaWatson]. (2014, 18 augustus). Gender equality not only liberates women but also men from prescribed gender stereotypes. #f [Tweet]. Geraadpleegd op https://twitter.com/emmawatson/status/501467746602061824?lang=nl

Watson, E. (z.j.). Our Shared Shelf. Goodreads. Geraadpleegd op https://www.goodreads.com/

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Online Interracial Dating Communities Are Full Of Racist Discourse

This article contains the introduction and conclusion of my paper Interracial Relationships in the 21st Century: How Online Interracial Dating Communities Function.

About 75 year ago, my then approximately 8-year old grandfather slammed the door when he saw a black man in front of him who was trying to sell nuts to people in the neighbourhood. He told me he had never seen a person with a different skin colour than white in his life, which scared him and made him run away from the man. In this period, he could have never imagined that only two generations later, one of his closest family members would get into a relationship with someone with another skin colour: interracial relationships were not usual in in that period, definitely not in the village where he lived. When my 85-year old grandmother heard I had a black American-Kenyan boyfriend, her first reaction was: ‘’A black person does not belong in our family’’.

Now, in the 21st century, a lot has changed in attitudes towards people from different races: no child would run away from seeing a black man on the street and comments like my grandmother’s have become at least remarkable. The development of digital technologies has provided new knowledge on all kinds of romantic relationships. Though this does not mean that racism has disappeared: the remnants of racist discourse is still with us today, even among interracial dating communities which argue to avoid racist thinking.

Norms in the online world

Western norms and values and white people are dominant in the online world. Consequently, white couples are the ‘norm’ and therefore are perceived as ‘normal’ couples, which makes interracial couples that involve a black and a white person ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal’. Still, online communities that deviate from the norm are out there and are for all of us to see and participate in. It could be argued that online interracial dating communities have made interracial relationships in general more ‘normal’ as they can be established more easily and are visible for everyone and in that way people get more used to it.  Controversially, they are still ‘abnormal’, as they do not fit in the ‘norm’ and their online existence could mean there is a lack of interracial relationships in the offline world. Online interracial dating communities themselves function through the idea that there really is a lack of interracial relationships in the offline world – due to the lack of time and/or lack of racial and/or cultural diversity in that world – and therefore exist to reverse this lack through digital communication.

Remnants of racist discourse

At the base of the online dominance of the West and the ‘abnormality’ of interracial relationships is the establishment of Western dominance and racist discourse which has its origin in the colonial era. Orientalism has been a powerful discourse in stereotyping ‘the other’ – by exotifying it or describing it as something dangerous – which assured the power of the West. Even though many people had the wish to leave racism behind and constructionist thinking had been established after World War II, there was still a feeling of white supremacy and racism. Though the situation for people with a dark skin colour and people in interracial relationships have been improved in the last century, this contradiction in attitudes is still with us today. One the one hand, an anti-racist norm is established in policies (for example racist laws have been left behind) and the percentage of interracial marriage have gone up. On the other hand, white people and Western norms are still dominant in today’s world and remnants of racist thinking and the feeling of supremacy are often disguised in the form of essentialist stereotyped ‘jokes’. For example, memes make use of the ‘abnormality’ around interracial relationships by making jokes about it, which shows implicit racism is a mechanism in the 21st century. Though, not all memes concerning interracial couples are the same: some are negative and others are positive towards interracial couples. This reflects the contradiction in attitudes towards race after World War II.

Normality versus authenticity

For online interracial dating communities, there seems to be a contrast between the wish to be ‘normal’ and the wish to be ‘authentic’. They argue to be ‘colour blind’ and go beyond the concept of race, which would make their relationship just another relationship. Paradoxically, partly driven by consumerism, they try to be different from ‘normal’ dating communities in mainstream society by actually emphasizing racial differences between people. The fact these communities are using the word ‘interracial’ shows they are influenced by and making use of remnants of racist discourse they argue to avoid. Also, while the love for ‘the other’ in interracial dating communities seems to be positive and is often regarded as proof that racism is disappearing, it is actually part of a wider orientalist discourse: they are exotifying ‘the other’. Online dating communities function through the influence of the dominant thinking of society in the sense that they imply their way of dating is ‘different’ by emphasizing racial differences themselves, though they choose to pick the ‘positive’ (misleading) orientalist way of thinking.

The great influence of dominant society

It can be suggested that the internet and online media are especially a reflection of the offline society. The white Western dominance versus the existence of and ability to engage in interracial dating communities, the essentialist thinking versus constructionist thinking, positive attitudes versus negative attitudes, normalization of interracial relationships versus authenticity or differentness of interracial relationships, etc. are contradictions in society that are reflected on the internet and in online media. The only difference the internet and online interracial dating communities have brought is that you can more easily engage in interracial dating – namely from behind your desk at home – which could increase the amount of interracial relationships in the offline world.  But it was not the internet that introduced the ‘general antiracist norm’ after World War II. It was not the internet that gave impulse in legalizing interracial marriage in all American states in 1967. So, it is not just the internet and online media that shape the ‘abnormality’ and various attitudes towards interracial relationships, rather, society is plays the greatest role: the internet is just a mirror. This results in that the idea of interracial dating communities are more shaped by the ideas of dominant society than they are shaped by themselves. They function through the ‘normalization’ process of interracial relationships since the post-WWII period in Europe and since 1967 in the USA, and the idea of being ‘different’ shaped by racist discourse. Explicit racism is not the only kind of racism, implicit racism should be recognized as well. In fact, racism should be recognized as an ideology; it is more a collective, structural and universal mechanism or discourse than an individual characteristic. This means that not everybody necessarily shares it, but it is capable of reaching every group in society, so also online interracial communities that argue to avoid racist thinking. If racist discourse was to disappear, the interracial dating communities and interracial relationships would disappear with them and just become dating communities and relationships.

Interracial Relationships in the 21st Century: How Online Interracial Dating Communities Function

This paper is part of the course  Knowledge in the Digital World (Year 1 Bachelor Online Culture: Art, Media and Society at Tilburg University).

For a short version of this paper click here

Abstract

The emergence of the internet has provided all kinds of online communities on websites and social media, such as a variety of dating communities. This paper discusses how online interracial dating communities function in the 21st century.

Introduction

About 75 year ago, my then approximately 8-year old grandfather slammed the door when he saw a black man in front of him who was trying to sell nuts to people in the neighbourhood. He told me he had never seen a person with a different skin colour than white in his life, which scared him and made him run away from the man. In this period, he could have never imagined that only two generations later, one of his closest family members would get into a relationship with someone with another skin colour: interracial relationships were not usual in in that period, definitely not in the village where he lived. When my 85-year old grandmother heard I had a black American-Kenyan boyfriend, her first reaction was: ‘’A black person does not belong in our family’’.

Now, in the 21st century, a lot has changed in attitudes towards people from different races: no child would run away from seeing a black man on the street and comments like my grandmother’s have become at least remarkable. The development of digital technologies has provided new knowledge on all kinds of romantic relationships. Though this does not mean that racism has disappeared: the discourse of my grandmother and grandfather is still with us today. The existence of the internet give us access to various attitudes towards other races, cultures and ‘mixed’ couples. Through ethnographic research, this paper provides a description of how online interracial dating communities in the 21st century. This paper takes digital ethnography as an approach as it ”can make substantial contribution of the study of present-day digital communication environments and our digital culture(s)’’ (Varis, 2015, p. 1). When examining others and partly myself, it has to be noted that ethnography is ‘’always a work of interpretation of complex social phenomena’’ (Hymes, as cited in Maly, 2016, p. 5). I should note I do not believe races are ‘out there’ but are rather socially constructed. In my eyes, there is only one race: the human race. In that sense, race is always a construct. Therefore, I would much rather use the word ‘intercolour’ than ‘interracial’. Still, I use the terms ‘interracial’ and ‘race’ in this paper as this is how it is mostly referred to in society and other researchers.

Norms in Online Media

In order to understand how online interracial dating communities function, it is important to know the online environment in which these communities function. McKee (2005, p. 1) argues that ‘’it’s common, both in everyday and academic writing, to hear people suggest that the public sphere – or ‘the media’ – are degenerating’’. One of the concerns is that people’s sexual relationships are increasingly discussed in the public sphere: ‘’Substantial parts of the public sphere in Western countries…deal exclusively with triviality’’ (McKee, 2005, p. 32). By studying Google search and searching ‘normal relationship’ and ‘normal couple’, findings indicate that online newspapers and magazines suggest to have an idea on what ‘normal’ relationships are by discussing personal issues, such as romantic relationships and sex. It should be noted that – before displaying the findings of the Google search study – the results I get in Google search are the result of my own algorithmic bubble: Google is not creating one reality, but creates algorithmic bubbles, which ”shape, or reinforce, our world view based on what we want to see or what is relevant to us instead of what we would rather not see but may need to see” (Hossain, 2016). These bubbles are based on online behaviour, location, language, etc.: if someone would search for ‘normal relationship’ and ‘normal couple’ in – for example – Arabic in Libya, that person would get different results than I who searches these terms in English from a place in the West. Still, it is useful to do this study. Elad Segev (2010, p. 170) found by examining the biases of online news through Google News that ‘’the USA and other English-speaking countries dominate content, and consequently empower their global vision and priorities’’ and by ‘’looking at global mass media channels (i.e. popular news sites and maps), it is the popularity and dominance of the US actors (e.g. companies and websites) and English content that often reflect US and Western views’’.  Besides, most online content is generated in English: Tagg (2015, p. 51) stated that ”while English users make up nearly 27 per cent of internet users, the percentage of web content in English is much higher (57 percent)” and that ”English will remain a dominant prescence online for some time”. Thus, this study will provide interesting thinking about dominant ideas in the online world.

The Huffington Post – one of the most popular news websites and blogs – published the article written by professional matchmaker and relationship expert Samantha Daniels, called ‘Is Your Relationship Normal?’. She presented ten pointers for people are wondering if their love relationship is ‘normal’:

Point four – ‘’If you aren’t in a relationship but you want to build a family, that is perfectly okay’’ – deserves extra attention as it is entirely based on a Western point of view. For example, in Muslim communities, sperm, egg or embryo donation is not allowed (Joseph, 2006, p. 350). Besides, even though quasi-adoptive adoption is allowed, there is cultural resistance to it in most Arab countries (Joseph, 2006, p. 139). So for Muslim communities and many Arab countries, building a family when you are single is not the norm, but the opposite: abnormal.

The women’s magazine Bustle published a similar article – ‘This Is How Much Sex Is Normal In A Long-Term Relationship, According To An Expert’ – about what is normal in a relationship, again, based on expert opinions. Also the articles in the magazines Today, SheKnows, Canadian Living and Psychology Today base their logic of the normality of relationships on Western-based psychologists, therapists, and relationship experts. These experts seem to have a certain power in the media and can make various statements about who has a ‘healthy’ relationship and who has not by generalizing all love relationships and not taking differences in norms and values into account.

The magazine Women’s Health goes even further in suggesting what makes a relationship normal by publishing Brennan’s article ‘Curious if You’re in a Normal Relationship?’. Brennan introduces various concerns couples have about their relationship, like ‘’we never kiss’’, and then shares ‘the norm’ of that specific concern in order to determine whether the issue is ‘normal’ or indeed ‘abnormal’. These norms are based on the percentage of the society that has the same issue, for example the norm for ‘’we never kiss’’, is ‘’seventy percent of couples have make-out sessions from time to time, and more than half of couples say they kiss like crazy several times a week’’.

In the end, Brennan sums up what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘not normal’ or ‘deviant’ based on American statistics.

All these articles are based on Western norms, values and expert opinions. This is not a surprise in the sense that all magazines presented are magazines created in Western countries. It is therefore important to emphasize that I found these articles immediately by simply typing in ‘normal couple’ and ‘normal relationship’ in Google search. This means that these Western views on relationships are the easiest captured online and the first ones people find when searching articles about this topic.

Google Image also provides us interesting thinking about what is perceived as a ‘normal’ couple, and whether interracial couples are part of this ‘normality’. In a small research, I have chosen to search the terms ‘normal couple’, ‘couple’, ‘black couple’, and ‘white couple’. The results are listed below. By searching:

  • ‘Normal couple’, only white couples show up.
  • ‘Couple’, only white couples show up again.
  • ‘Black couple’, only black couples are presented.
  • ‘White couple’, mainly interracial couples are shown.

Google suggests that ‘normal couples’ and ‘white couples’ are the same kind of couples as these searches both only result in images of white couples. This implies that white couples are perceived as the ‘norm’. Therefore, it is necessary to add ‘black’ to ‘couple’ in order to get pictures of black couples, while adding ‘white’ to ‘couple’ seems to be completely unnecessary and even inefficient, as only interracial couples show up. In order to find pictures of white couples, it is more efficient to just type in ‘couple’, as, according to Google search, couples are white, ‘normally’.

These small researchers show that Western norms and values and white people are dominant on the internet. This means that these Western views on relationships are the easiest captured online and the first ones people find when searching articles about this topic, though with the nuance that I search the terms in English from a place in the West.

Online Interracial Dating Communities

After the transition from a community based on locality to a community that is disconnected from time and space, Miller (2011, pp. 189-190) suggests that online communities could be a reasonable next step in the transformation of the community. Due to detraditionalisation (the shift from fate to choice), disembedding (disconnection of interaction and locality), globalisation, reflexivity and the tradition of imagined communities, people are exposed to a variety of people. In the 21st century, the term ‘multiculturalism’ is not enough to describe the diversity among people in society. Instead, the term ‘superdiversity’ has been introduced by Vertovec, adding ‘super-’ to ‘diversity’ in order to describe an evolution towards a ”complexity surpassing anything…previously experienced’’ (as cited in Maly, 2016, p. 2). Besides new migration patterns after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, superdiversity can also be linked to the changes in communication technologies: not only migrants have superdiverse lives, but everyone can engage in it (Maly, 2016, p. 3), for example through participating in online communities. One of the benefits of online communities is the increased choice in an individual’s social relationships, which also includes love relationships. Very popular are dating sites and applications, where someone can find a partner based on his or her interests and preferences which are asked for when he or she signs up. Meeting people through online dating means being able to connect with people on a transnational level and meet people from all over the world with all sorts of different backgrounds. The emergence of dating sites also meant the emergence of dating communities with certain specific interests, such as interracial dating communities, where individuals are (only) interested in dating a man or woman from another race. Nowadays, there are plenty of interracial dating sites available.

Becker (1963, p. 1) argues that ‘’all social groups make rules and attempt, at some times and under some circumstances, to enforce them. Social rules define situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate to them’’. ‘Outsiders’, then, are ‘’people who are judged by others to be deviant and thus to stand outside the circle of ‘’normal’’ members of the group’’ (Becker, 1963, p. 3). As we have seen in the previous section, interracial couples seem to stand outside the circle of ‘normal’ relationships. Still, we can apply Becker’s knowledge on ‘deviant’ online communities as well, as these communities also make rules and decide what is ‘normal’ in their own group which excludes other people, or, how Becker would put it, creates ‘outsiders’.

The goal of the interracial dating website www.afroromance.com is ‘’finding love beyond races’’. Though, at the same time, the site only seems to allow dating between a white person and a black person: ‘’Black singles and white singles – that’s what we do’’.  This shows that the website does not really look beyond races, but rather emphasizes them. Furthermore, an important function of the website is that it makes ‘’black and white dating easy’’, which implies that this ‘kind of dating’ is more difficult in the offline world.

When looking at the home page of the website, it suggests that they only allow black and white dating and exclude other people, such as Asians. Though this is not the case, as they also allow other ethnicities besides black and white. As this is not obvious from the home page, it could accidentially exclude other races from signing up. When signing up for the website, you have to provide your ethnicity and the ethnicities you are interested in. You can also show others that you are interested in any ethnicity, though most people show specific preferences regarding ethnicity in the option ‘Looking for a:’.

Some people even explicitly express their own ethnicity and their preference for a certain ethnicity.

It is also possible to do ‘quick searches’ on the dating website, which provides you to quickly find the ethnicity of your interest. Thus, the interest of the people signing up on the dating site is especially the other’s ethnicity. Again, this shows they do not actually go beyond races but rather emphasize them.

Not all interracial dating websites suggest to focus on black and white dating. For instance, www.interracialmatch.com focusses on dating between all races. Their goal is to ‘’bring like-minded singles together under one ‘roof’ and help them go about with their interracial dating and even cement interracial relationships’’. Also this website argues that it is more difficult to establish interracial relationships in the real world ‘’due to time and work constraints’’. Moreover, this site functions through the concept of ‘authenticity’: ‘’This truly makes us stand out from the entire cluster of other dating sites on the internet, because unlike them, our members start out having something in common: a love for singles from other races and ethnicities’’. They argue they ‘stand out’ from other dating sites because of the members’ love for people with a different ethnic or racial background. Besides, by saying ‘’a love for singles from other races and ethnicities’’, also this site emphasizes racial differences instead of really going beyond them.

The dating site www.lovecrossesborders.com also argues that interracial and intercultural dating is more difficult in the offline world as there seems to be a lack in racial and cultural diversity, in this case in Jamaica. The site presents itself as a ‘’platform for color blind and culturally sensitive singles from all over the world’’ who ‘’believe that geographical borders, pigmentation, sex or religion shouldn’t determine who you spend the rest of your life with’’. So, the website tried to ‘normalize’ ‘mixed’ relationships. Also, this website – unlike the previous two – does not only focus on race. Though, they still present intercultural and interracial dating as something ‘authentic’ by showcasting ‘’‘’our kind of love’’, intercultural and interracial that is’’. ‘Our kind of love’ implies that it is something authentic: they suggest it is a different ‘kind of love’, namely intercultural and interracial. This suggests that they are, in fact, not ‘color blind’, but see interracial dating as something ‘abnormal’ or ‘different’, though they give meaning to this ‘abnormality’ in a positive sense of uniqueness or authenticity. While all dating sites imply that their primary objective is to find you true love, they compete all other dating sites out there and are driven by consumerism, arguing they are ‘unique’ in the online dating business and you should choose to sign up for their site instead of others.

Also online media, such as Facebook, are involved in creating online interracial dating communities.

Looking into the Facebook community named ‘INTERRACIAL UNDERGROUND’, thirteen rules are clearly defined in the description. If a member of the group violates one of these rules, he or she will be ‘booted’ (banned). The second Facebook group for interracial dating that came up was ‘Interracial! Black women and White men ONLY! No exceptions!’. This group is less popular on the social media site with around 20,000 members compared to the previous one, and by only reading the group name it is already clear to see why. The owners of this Facebook community only include – unlike the owners of ‘INTERRACIAL UNDERGROUND’ – only white men and black women, and thus, as the description tells us ‘’are not allowing in this group any Indians, Arabians, Asians, Turkish, black men or white women’’. People who do not fit the category of white men or black women and still try to sign up for the community ‘’will be threaded [treated] as an intruder for not respecting the main purpose of this group and shall therefore be banned’’ and thus treated as outsiders. Also noteworthy is the name of this community. By using the word ‘underground’, it suggests that the community exists outside the mainstream society of culture, and could be perceived as a counter-culture with its own rules.

All people engaging in interracial communities seem to have a certain ‘love for the other’. ‘Otherness’ is in fact embodied in stereotypes: ”stereotypical images of the cultural other have become enmeshed with intimate personal desire – which we often regard as deeply individual” (Piller, 2011, p. 112).  If I would have signed up on one of these websites because I have a desire for the culture and race of ‘the other’ and would have met my boyfriend on there, I would have been disappointed: our culture, way of life, etc. is not far apart from each other. Someone should not be placed into a box based on his or her skin colour: stereotypes often do not match reality. Futhermore, the love for certain stereotypes is not merely an individual threat. Instead, it is part of a wider discourse.

Memes

Memes are captioned images that are intended to be funny, often to ridicule human behaviour or make certain statements. They have become increasingly popular on the internet, especially among young people on social media. To give an idea of how popular memes have become: according to Google Trends, a system that tracks down how many people search for certain terms, the term ‘memes’ have surpassed the term ‘Jesus’ on Google Search in 2016.

Everyday, when I look on my social media accounts – whether that is Facebook or Instagram – I see several memes. They do not only appear on my Facebook or Instagram feeds, but also in my messages, as all my friends send it to me personally or in group chats: it has become a way of communicating with each other and making each other laugh. With regard to romantic relationships, there are way more memes about interracial couples than there are about white couples to be found in Google search. Besides, most of these memes are about black and white people in a relationship.

As argued before, the West and white people are the norm on the internet, which make white couples ‘normal’ couples. Then, it is not a shock interracial couples are more often made fun of in the form of memes, as ‘’the world of the joke involves the abnormal’’ (Oring, 1992, p. 81). Many jokes are negative regarding interracial couples, by for example implying that parents will not be proud if you are in a relationship with someone outside your race or suggesting that race-mixing is something that you should not get involved in.

Also, many of these negative jokes are based on black stereotypes, such as the idea that black people love chicken and melons, black men leave their partners after they got a child, and even the racist thought that black people are closer to apes.

Controversially, memes are also made for expressing support towards interracial relationships in a funny matter.

There seems to be a contradiction in memes concerning interracial couples. There are different niches (and political positions) among people in society: one the one hand, people give meaning to interracial dating in a negative way and make racist jokes about it, and one the other hand, people give meaning to it in a positive sense and show support towards these couples.

Racist Discourse  

One of the key principles of doing digital ethnography is ‘non-digital-centric-ness’, which implies that the digital is de-centred in digital ethnography (Pink et al, 2016, p. 9). Pink et al. (2016, p. 9) state that always putting media at the centre of studying media ‘’would be problematic because it would pay too little attention to the ways in which media are part of wider sets of environments and relations’’. Thus, they argue, ‘’in order to understand how digital media are part of people’s everyday worlds, we also need to understand other aspects of their worlds and lives’’ (Pink et al., 2016, p. 10). This means the explanations for the way online interracial dating communities function are to be found in the offline world.

The ‘abnormality’ around interracial couples reflected on the internet and social media finds its origins in racist thinking, or racist discourse, of European powers – such as Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, and Belgium – which sought worldwide European domination starting in the seventeenth century. Their urge for expansion included creating colonial markets which boosted Europe’s economic and social development. At the core of this expansion was the Atlantic slave trade – the forced migration of Africans across the Atlantic for slave labour on plantations and in other industries – and racist discourse:

‘’Racist discourse is a form of discriminatory social practice that manifest itself in text, talk and communication. Together with other (nonverbal) discriminatory practices, racist discourse contributes to the reproduction of racism as a form of ethnic or ‘’racial’’ domination. It does so by typically expressing, confirming or legitmating racist opinions, attitudes and ideologies of the dominant ethnic group’’ (Van Dijk, 2004, p. 351).

For example, the discourse of stereotyping black people as children and animals protected Western powers from charges of exploitation.

Hondius (2014) argued that through racist discourse, ‘’the concept of race…has enabled the construction of racial hierarchies that justified racist regimes far beyond European borders’’. For example, the discourse of stereotyping black people as children and animals protected Western powers from charges of exploitation: ‘’caring for the infant, domesticizing or taming the animal, are both positive’’ (Hondius, 2014). Orientalist discourse has played an important role in stereotyping ‘the other’ by Western powers. Orientalism, a term marked by Edward Said (1978, p. 1), refers to ”a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience”. Furthermore, he describes the Orient as ”not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and language, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other”. In general terms, orientalism is a racist discourse based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; the basic distinction between East and West. Historically, orientalism refers to a Western style of dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient. Said (1978, p. 73) argues ”the Orient for Europe was until the nineteenth century a domain with a continuous history of unchallenged Western dominance”. The Orient is thus a European invention: on the one hand, ”a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (Said, 1978, p. 1), and, on the other hand, ”there is the motif of the Orient as insinuating danger” (Said, 1978, p. 57). Online interracial dating communities do not present other races as dangerous, but do exotify ‘the other’, which shows that they do not go beyond racist discourses.

Mostly ‘the other’ has been treated as a dangerous individual. For instance, in 1664, Maryland passed the first British colonial law banning marriage between white people and slaves; a law which did not make any distinction between free black people and slaves. In 1691, Virginia firstly followed the British example in banning interracial marriage followed by many other American states.  In 1883, with the Pace v. Alabama, the US Supreme Courts announced that ‘’[I]f any white person and any negro, or the descendant of any negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation was a white person, intermarry or live in adultery or fornication with each other, each of them must, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary or sentenced to hard labor for the county for not less than two nor more than seven years’’ (as cited in Head, 2017).

The end of the colonial empires meant a change in Europe’s attitude towards non-white immigration, which provoked interaction and segregation. After World War II, the presence of black people in Europe created mixed feelings amongst white citizens: there were strong feelings of supremacy and racism on the one hand, and an ideal and wish to leave traditional ideas of racial differences behind on the other. These contradictions gradually developed into a ‘’general antiracist norm’’, in which the concept of ‘’‘’human races’’ could by now be considered as a thing of the past, considering the generally accepted insight that human races do not exist’’ but are socially constructed (Hondius, 2014). Constructionism is on the one hand ‘’a belief in absolute agency’’ and, on the other hand, ‘’a belief in the importance of society in constructing everybody’s personal identity on the other’’ (McKee, 2005, p. 53). The importance of society in constructing someone’s identity is about the influence of external factors which influence who we are. In post-war context, people generally started believing race is created by society and does not contain certain characteristics which belong to an ‘authentic core’ of a certain race. New attitudes towards race meant overturning the Pace v. Alabama by the US Supreme Court by introducing Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal in all the American states. Interracial marriages have increased a lot since then: in 2013, a record-high 12% of newlyweds married someone outside their own race in the US (Wang, 2015). Still, white and black people are less likely to marry people of another race: only 7% of white and 19% of black newlyweds in 2013 married someone outside of their race.

© Pew Research Center

Though the idea of race as socially constructed became more important in scholarly debates, it has not accomplished much according to African-American historian Berlin (1998, p. 1): ‘’Few people believe it; fewer act on it. The new understanding of race has changed behaviour little if at all’’. Though I do not agree on that it has not changed anything, based on the new positive attitudes and increase in interracial marriages. But, essentialism, the belief that ”women and men, Black people and white people, straight people and Queer people, each have a particular ‘essential’ culture that belongs to them’’ (McKee, 2005, p. 53), is still alive in today’s society in the form of stereotypes and prejudges. As showed in the previous section, stereotypes and prejudges are used in judging interracial relationships between a white and black person online, often in the form of memes. The meme which presents a white girl with a monkey, shows that what Hondius (2014) calls the ‘bestialization’ – the ‘’inclination of Europeans to regard and to treat Africans and Asians as animals’’ – is still apparent nowadays.

By Charles White (1799), a British fellow of Royal Society and a leader in physics. White wrote that ‘’in whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him near to the ape’’ (as cited in Bynum, 2012, p. 272)

Also the stereotype that black people love chicken has its origin in colonialism and its racist discourse, as chickens had been important in diets of slaves in the Southern states (Demby, 2013). The same counts for melons: free black people in the US grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and by doing this, they made the melon a symbol of their freedom. Southern white people, who rejected their freedom, made the fruit a symbol of the black people’s dirtiness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted presence (Black, 2014). These remnants of biological racism are described as ‘embodied racism’ by Weaver (2011, p. 67), which is the ‘’racism with an order-building and hierarchical propensity, and an invention of modernity alongside of the development of race itself’’. These memes seem to be innocent, but are in fact embodied in racist ideas developed centuries ago in order to justify Western dominance, disguised and justified in the thought that ‘it is just a joke’.

© Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections. Coon songs’ were tunes that made fun of African-Americans for their laziness and childishness. ‘Coon’ is an insulting term for a black person or refers to a black actor or actress who stereotypically portrays black people

I have experienced such ‘jokes’ as well, especially sex jokes: people saying that ‘’it must hurt’’, ‘’it probably does not fit’’, etc. Or people joking that joking that I am getting ‘’the taste for it now’’, as I went from a Moroccan boyfriend to a black boyfriend (he said this in a negative way: he meant going from bad to worse), and asking ‘’what will it be next?’’ There have also been people stating ‘’he must be a fast runner’’ and even ‘’he must like chicken’’.  Normally we do not feel very offended by such comments: ”usually these things do not bother me as it is usually committed by unintelligent people,” my boyfriend argues. Though it shows implicit racism is still with us today, leading to unconcious biases when making comments or jokes about other races. This would mean that racist comments and jokes are not just made by unintelligent people, but by all sorts of people who are unconsciously influenced by racist discourses.

Conclusion

Western norms and values and white people are dominant in the online world. Consequently, white couples are the ‘norm’ and therefore are perceived as ‘normal’ couples, which makes interracial couples that involve a black and a white person ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal’. Still, online communities that deviate from the norm are out there and are for all of us to see and participate in. It could be argued that online interracial dating communities have made interracial relationships in general more ‘normal’ as they can be established more easily and are visible for everyone and in that way people get more used to it.  Controversially, they are still ‘abnormal’, as they do not fit in the ‘norm’ and their online existence could mean there is a lack of interracial relationships in the offline world. Online interracial dating communities themselves function through the idea that there really is a lack of interracial relationships in the offline world – due to the lack of time and/or lack of racial and/or cultural diversity in that world – and therefore exist to reverse this lack through digital communication. At the base of the online dominance of the West and the ‘abnormality’ of interracial relationships is the establishment of Western dominance and racist discourse which has its origin in the colonial era. Orientalism has been a powerful discourse in stereotyping ‘the other’ – by exotifying it or describing it as something dangerous – which assured the power of the West. Even though many people had the wish to leave racism behind and constructionist thinking had been established after World War II, there was still a feeling of white supremacy and racism. Though the situation for people with a dark skin colour and interracial relationships have been improved in the last century, this contradiction in attitudes is still with us today. One the one hand, an anti-racist norm is established in policies (for example racist laws have been left behind) and the percentage of interracial marriage have gone up. On the other hand, white people and Western norms are still dominant in today’s world and remnants of racist thinking and the feeling of supremacy are often disguised in the form of essentialist stereotyped ‘jokes’. For example, memes make use of the ‘abnormality’ around interracial relationships by making jokes about it, which shows implicit racism is a mechanism in the 21st century. Though, not all memes concerning interracial couples are the same: some are negative and others are positive towards interracial couples. This reflects the contradiction in attitudes towards race after World War II.

For online interracial dating communities, there seems to be a contrast between the wish to be ‘normal’ and the wish to be ‘authentic’. They argue to be ‘colour blind’ and go beyond the concept of race, which would make their relationship just another relationship. Paradoxically, partly driven by consumerism, they try to be different from ‘normal’ dating communities in mainstream society by actually emphasizing racial differences between people. The fact these communities are using the word ‘interracial’ shows they are influenced by and making use of remnants of racist discourse they argue to avoid. Also, while the love for ‘the other’ in interracial dating communities seems to be positive and is often regarded as proof that racism is disappearing, it is actually part of a wider orientalist discourse: they are exotifying ‘the other’. Online dating communities function through the influence of the dominant thinking of society in the sense that they imply their way of dating is ‘different’ by emphasizing racial differences themselves, though they choose to pick the ‘positive’ (misleading) orientalist way of thinking.

It can be suggested that the internet and online media are especially a reflection of the offline society. The white Western dominance versus the existence of and ability to engage in interracial dating communities, the essentialist thinking versus constructionist thinking, positive attitudes versus negative attitudes, normalization of interracial relationships versus authenticity or differentness of interracial relationships, etc. are contradictions in society that are reflected on the internet and in online media. The only difference the internet and online interracial dating communities have brought is that you can more easily engage in interracial dating – namely from behind your desk at home – which could increase the amount of interracial relationships in the offline world.  But it was not the internet that introduced the ‘general antiracist norm’ after World War II. It was not the internet that gave impulse in legalizing interracial marriage in all American states in 1967. So, it is not just the internet and online media that shape the ‘abnormality’ and various attitudes towards interracial relationships, rather, society is plays the greatest role: the internet is just a mirror. This results in that the idea of interracial dating communities are more shaped by the ideas of dominant society than they are shaped by themselves. They function through the ‘normalization’ process of interracial relationships since the post-WWII period in Europe and since 1967 in the USA, and the idea of being ‘different’ shaped by racist discourse. Explicit racism is not the only kind of racism, implicit racism should be recognized as well. In fact, racism should be recognized as an ideology; it is more a collective, structural and universal mechanism or discourse than an individual characteristic. This means that not everybody necessarily shares it, but it is capable of reaching every group in society, so also online interracial communities that argue to avoid racist thinking. If racist discourse was to disappear, the interracial dating communities and interracial relationships would disappear with them and just become dating communities and relationships. Indeed, without the legacies of racial discourse I would have never examined how interracial dating communities function in the 21st century.

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