Not many people will admit to being racist ... if their name is attached to it.
How would you feel if you read "Bash that bitch's head in," and knew that the head they were talking about bashing was yours? Melissa Melendez says it was "disheartening." That's an understatement.
In meatspace, aka IRL, aka the physical world, it's pretty uncommon for people to just stand up and publicly state, "I want to bash that bitch's head in." You walk around in life, feeling like you don't really know that many blatantly racist people ... but in an anonymous forum, you might see something like:
There's a name for this. Sociologists call it the Online Disinhibition Effect. Penny Arcade more colorfully (and accurately) coined the phrase "The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory." It's an observable phenomenon.
Basic principle: When we know no one can see us, our worst selves come out.
The whole story is ... I mean, you've got to hear it to believe it. But here's the gist:
Melissa Melendez went to Colgate on scholarship. She'd never been in such a homogeneous place before. She grew up in the Bronx, where she hung out with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans (like her family), West Indians, all kinds of people. She was a bit of a novelty to her classmates, too.
They asked her all kinds of questions:
"Do you know JLo?" "How many baby daddies does your mom have?" And my favorite:
She wasn't the only one.
Other minority students experienced constant reminders that they didn't belong. They staged a sit-in to draw attention to the racism on their campus. They spent a whole day telling their personal stories.
And at first, they thought they'd won.
The administration agreed to make some changes, including a focus on diversity in hiring and recruitment.
Online, though, things looked different.
Students at Colgate, as at many colleges, use Yik Yak to post anonymously about what's going on. They started posting a response to the protest that was, well, crazy.
They had no idea who posted the hateful comments and threats.
The students who organized the sit-in started going places only in groups because they were concerned for their safety.
Melissa's friend Charity, who was also involved with the sit-in, said that she wondered all day long about every person she met. "I think, 'Who posted that terrible thing on Yik Yak? Are they in my classes? Are they my friends? Do I hang out with them at parties? Is that the person who said, “Black girls are hot, just not at Colgate"?'"
Imagine how that would affect your everyday interactions.
What if you thought maybe your lab partner was the person who responded to the sit-in by posting:
Geoff Holm, a biology professor, asked the faculty to join him in a “Yik Yak Take Back."
He asked them to post whatever they felt like on the site — congratulations for a student who got into a great med school, taunting about upcoming tough exams, dad jokes. The one rule: They had to sign their names.
In the words of "Reply All" host Alex Goldman:
The crazy thing is, it kind of worked.
It disrupted this pile of negativity. It made the student protesters feel safer and less alone. Just having someone speak up made a huge difference.
Check out the full episode here: