Before we are able to define a safe environment in online activities, it is useful to consider the current definition of “safe space“, which, according to the Merriam-webster dictionary, is “a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
Secondly, it is crucial to consider whether we are able to accept that this goal is properly articulated in line with the values of our democratic, post-colonial society, which has closed off ideas in the form of patriarchal and racist societies of the past. Indeed, this fact is often formulated as a fait accompli. But it is good to realize that these values are not yet sufficiently anchored in our society. In a global network, this is an even more pressing issue, as our values are understandably not the same as those of other cultures.
Even in face-to-face interactions, we are still faced with many aspects of human predispositions that hinder the achievement of a safe environment. The online environment can only seemingly eliminate certain triggers. For example, one can camouflage one’s identity as an avatar to prevent racist comments. But is such a shortcut solution good, even though it would try to eliminate the unsafe environment? When we focus on racism as one of the things we would like to curb online, it is good to take a scientific view of it and ask the question. Is racism a product of culture, or is it an innate human trait?
Dr. Robert Supolsky, a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University, argues that race is not a particularly strong innate category in our heads, and racism as an unconscious category is surprisingly easy to change. So it’s a cultural thing… The average black child today still prefers to play with white dolls because they are “nicer” and “less likely to hurt you.” So racism is a deeply rooted phenomenon, and few things speak to that as clearly as when people are conditioned by racist feelings toward themselves.
Supolsky is referring to the situation in the U.S., which, although it has a very racism-laden history, is far from being one of the most racist countries in the world. Many would be surprised at what countries in the world win these rankings.
A 2013 study published by the International Review for Social Sciences Kyklos shared a map of racism tendencies based on the question where people picked “people of another race” when asked to pick from groups of people they would not want as neighbours. Unless we assume that the situation has changed significantly in a decade, India tops the charts with all of Indonesia in tow, closely followed by Japan and South Korea.
We can see from these examples that an environment free of racism cannot automatically be assumed to be something that can be achieved by any tools, especially in a network that more or less connects the whole world.
With a close look at the data, it is, therefore, a good idea to choose carefully what to emphasize in the online environment. Can the use of avatars be helpful? Or do they distract from adapting to the diversity of people in their real form?
Asian countries’ investment in culture and showbiz has emerged as one of the most significant phenomena in breaking down racist stereotypes. An example is South Korea, which in the 1990s targeted a huge chunk of its HDP for cultural funding with the intention of exporting. Breaking down racial barriers was not their goal, yet their primarily economic decision resulted in one of the strongest revivals of respect for Asian ethnicity in the West.
The surge in popularity of Korean music and film and TV series production is something that set the world on fire, and Western racist inertia at first reluctantly but nonetheless succumbed to this wave of popularity, and the number of Western-Asian collaborations increased manifold. Fans all over the world are connected by their love of showbiz stars and stimulated by cross-cultural curiosity and self-education. In the UK, the number of people learning Korean has increased by 76 per cent and in the US by 40 per cent. Online streaming platforms allow users to watch and comment on series in groups that can share their enthusiasm.
Although Western culture is opening up even more to that of Asia, the effect may not be reciprocated. The increase in tourism to Japan and Korea has, in many ways, caused a kind of withdrawal by the locals. White tourists, although fascinated by the partial products of their culture, are unable to accept their culture with sufficient respect in its entirety and behave in a way that does not cause the locals much discomfort. Of course, this is a reality we observe globally, where the increase in tourism and passive consumerism is not conducive to mutual understanding.
So, the remaining question is not how to provide a safe environment for online activities. Combating prejudice and culturally instilled mistrust seems quite challenging to impossible in a piecemeal effort. However, the perception and awareness of natural trends towards openness may have quite different potential. Although we may not feel racist ourselves, are we able to accept that members of other cultures do not approach us so openly? And the only really effective tool is perhaps then only the stimulation of human virtues in our upbringing and our own behaviour and acceptance that others might not have those virtues yet or ever.
Author: Katarina Klusová
Image: DALL-E from Open AI