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Like most reporters, I try to confirm what my interview subjects say even when I have little reason to doubt them. I’ve asked to see the texts that a mass shooting survivor sent during the time he said he had feared for his life, the medical records of a woman who said she carried a genetic risk for cancer, the test scores of a student said to excel at math.
But my recent reporting on racial tensions in a popular Reddit forum was the only time I have asked to see the faces of interviewees who said they were black. (I am white.) Doing so filled me with a discomfort that I came to recognize as the conflict at the heart of my article. It also made for some big reveals.
“Hang on,” one of my sources said as I peered at a blank computer screen the morning he had agreed to a video call, only to find his camera was malfunctioning. “I’m black, I promise. I’m definitely black!”
I had no choice but to check. Reddit is home to thousands of topic-based communities, or “subreddits,” where privacy is held sacrosanct and pseudonyms are the norm. Few users of the one I was writing about, Black People Twitter, would disclose their real names, so I couldn’t search the web for a picture. Nor could I be sure I wasn’t falling for a devious scheme by the subreddit’s volunteer moderators to certify white users as black. Yikes.
With nearly four million subscribers, Black People Twitter is one of the few large, public online discussion forums about black American life, and its moderators had instituted a policy that was drawing criticism from Reddit users across the political spectrum: On heated threads, they had announced, participation of white users would be limited.
As part of an ongoing effort by The Times’s National desk to explore how technology is shaping our interactions around race, and vice versa, I reached out to the subreddit’s moderators — using, at first, various forms of text messages. They told me the policy arose partly from complaints that black users had raised over comments that routinely characterized racial inequality as natural, nonexistent or the fault of black Americans. It would also, they hoped, make it harder for white users to pass themselves off as black, a practice they believed was not uncommon.
Mainly, though, it was meant to combat what one called the “subtle expression of privilege” that led to white voices dominating discussions in a subreddit devoted to humor and commentary about black life. “If they could say, ‘I’m just going to let this conversation rock without me,’ the system wouldn’t be needed,” said Wesley Moreno, the only moderator who allowed me to use his name. “But people feel the need to weigh in.”
Critics accused the moderators of racism for lumping together white users with disparate opinions on issues like police violence and systemic racism, of shutting down debate, of retreating to “a giant echo chamber.” “Yeah, I get it, I’ll never understand what it’s like to be black,” wrote the user bobbymcprescott, “but removing a non-racist comment because I’m white is just childish.”
Supporters replied that it could be useful for white Reddit users to experience being rejected based on their skin color, and pointed to the thousands of black users celebrating the move as evidence that it filled a need. “Reddit is full of mostly white subreddits,” they wrote in a public post. “We have Black People Twitter.”
The importance of knowing someone’s race when the conversation is about race was not lost on me. I had asked all my sources their race by phone or text, because it was clearly relevant to the article. “Are you living this or are you just commenting on it?” as Mr. Moreno put it. I also understood that the appeal to democratic ideals by white Reddit users read to many black Reddit users as a particular flavor of what has been called “white fragility,” the trademark inability of white Americans to meaningfully own their unearned privilege. “You feel the entitlement that it’s your space, that you need to be the voice to tell the story,” said Tony Hinderman, a visually-verfied-by-me black Black People Twitter user, “when it’s really not your story.”
As a reporter who has written about forms of racism both subtle and less so over the past year, and as a sentient human being, I was under no illusion that we were living in a post-racial society. Still, the mere act of asking for proof of someone’s race felt like a violation of a taboo I had internalized growing up and perhaps also in my time as a reporter covering the late 1990s internet. The techno-utopians of that era, the digital culture scholar Andre Brock of the Georgia Institute of Technology reminded me, held the dual beliefs that democracy thrives only when free speech is near-absolute and that internet-enabled anonymity would strip away the biases, racial and otherwise, impeding that freedom. It’s possible I had come closer than I would like to admit to having been one of them.
For now, though, we have an internet where white people, sometimes posing as black people, can actively sow racial division, and a democracy, according to a recent Pew Research study, in which black and white adults have widely different perceptions about the fairness with which black Americans are treated.
“A lot of colorblind ideology has been manifested online,” Dr. Brock said. “But it ignores the powerful role that whiteness has in shaping everyday existence in this country.”
Reddit, researchers of the online ecosystem say, may come the closest of mainstream social media to approximating the vision of the early internet. The user Sailor_callisto said pseudonyms had eased her communication with other law students studying for the bar exam last year. In a law school subreddit, “people were honest and open and vulnerable,” she said, “whereas all my friends made it sound like ‘I’m totally not struggling.’” Connecting with strangers who share her interests is easier on Reddit than on Facebook and Instagram, she said, and she appreciates the absence of visuals: “You don’t have to be this ‘perfect person.’”
But last spring, when Black People Twitter’s moderators started placing check marks next to the screen names of black participants who had sent in photographs of their forearms, hers was among the first they received. That visual cue to the racial lens of those commenting in the subreddit’s standard discussions about lifestyle and current events, black users say, is welcome. So are the discussions, known as “Country Club threads,” that moderators choose to close off to anyone they have not verified as a person of color (aspiring white participants can apply for ally status).
This was possible on Reddit, I learned, because subreddit moderators get to make their own rules. Criticism of President Trump is banned from “the_donald” while “VoteBlue” requires contributors to “be the best person you can be.” Mere “crazy ideas” have no place in “Showerthoughts,” which is restricted to “miniature epiphanies that make the mundane more interesting,” and Black People Twitter has for years accepted as its jumping-off point for discussions only screenshots of tweets posted by black users of Twitter. Still, the Black People Twitter moderators were pushing an established Reddit boundary. There is a difference between accepting only comments about “high-quality images of abandoned things and places,” as in the “Abandoned Porn” subreddit, for instance, and allowing only certain kinds of people to make those comments. A Reddit spokeswoman told me she was unaware of other public subreddits that screen by race or group attribute.
After asking for my first video verification, it became easier. My approaching deadline helped. I stopped thinking so much about the political logistics of online safe spaces and started fact-checking. Like most interview subjects when asked to document an experience they think is important to share, many were eager to help. An airplane mechanic from Memphis video-called me on WhatsApp, as did the Black People Twitter moderator Nasjere. A Chicago actor FaceTimed me. I viewed Mr. Moreno, an information technology professional in Rhode Island, over Google Hangout. They were black.
The Black People Twitter moderators, I concluded, were not dispensing check marks to white people so as to imbue their views with a counterfeit authority. In fact, I realized as I reviewed their public Reddit posts, the moderators, too, may have wondered what their visual verification would yield.
“It is so great,” they wrote after the first deluge of forearm photos arrived in their Reddit mail, “to see the huge amount of black people that use this sub and want a community here.”
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Amy Harmon is a national correspondent, covering the intersection of science and society. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for her series “The DNA Age”, and as part of a team for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” @amy_harmon • Facebook
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