…while one can dismiss these comments as outliers, as representative of trolls or extremists, or even link these comments to the whiteness of hockey, it is crucial to reflect on the larger context. These comments reflect broader trends online, within contemporary racial discourse, and within American sports culture.
From recent tweets from model/actress Jessica Leandra Dos Santos to those directed at webseries showrunner Issa Rae and those following the release of The Hunger Games, Twitter has become rife with racial epithets, sexism, and other forms of hate speech. The level of vitriol and the ubiquity of epithets and violence language have been well-documented: therefore, the tweets directed at Ward reflect a larger pattern of racism online, as opposed to a hockey-specific manifestation. At one level, racism online reflects the technology and aesthetics that define an online environment.
Whether emboldened by anonymity, or the fact that millions of people now have a platform to disseminate their views, ideologies, and world view, the nature of online racism merely reflects the available technology. A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker captured the appeal of virtual reality for people to voice and show the worst in themselves and society at large.
As Northwestern University professor Pablo Boczkowski told NewsOne, “We always had people shouting on the street. It was a handful of people, and the sender of the message could be clearly identified. Now the audience is much bigger, it’s more unknown, it’s more diverse potentially, and this has changed the dynamics of the game.”
The existence of avatars, online handles, and twitter accounts that can be deleted in a moment notice fosters a culture where epithets and racist pronouncements are seemingly detached from the real-body giving voice to them. The author is unclear, yet the consequences are daily evident. Brendesha Tines, professor African-American studies and psychology at the University of Illinois, describes an online world rampant with racism. In her study of high school youth, she found that 29 percent of African Americans and 42 percent of those identifying as “other” or mixed race experienced racial epithets or other forms of racism online; some 71% of African Americans and 67% of whites and mixed-race youth “witnessed discrimination experienced by same-race and cross-race peers.” It would be a mistake to look at the tweets directed at Joel Ward as an aberration but rather a visible manifestation of the daily realities of online racism.
It would also be a mistake to particularize these tweets as evidence of the sordid debauchery of online spaces. While reflecting online culture, and the presence of “trolls,” the racism directed at Joel Ward, as with other examples, reveals the nature of racism within contemporary society.