I recently got asked whether videos of everyday racism posted on social media be seen as a form of activism. From my perspective, the recording of videos by non-celebrities of everyday racism is definitely a form of activism as it allows individuals who may have not had networks or the means to express or convey experiences of everyday racism to large publics, especially global ones. In this way, these technologies allow individuals to have an audience which was far more difficult, though not impossible, pre-social media to achieve. Also, having a mobile phone with you at all times, gives you recording equipment both in terms of video and audio that are extremely powerful and were not at people’s fingertips before the advent of smartphones. Our ability to be able to record acts of everyday racism was more limited in the sense that one had to have a camera or other recording technology on them. We sometimes forget that having recording technology with us at all times is a very recent shift. This is not to say that forms of reporting racism did not occur in the past. Indeed, one of the most memorable aspects of being able to catch out racism and be able to disseminate this worldwide was the infamous recording of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. This points to a notion termed ‘sousveillance’, which is the idea of the people who are normally surveilled by authorities being able to surveil authorities. In other words, a flip of who is surveilling whom. This is what happened with Rodney King and what happens with Americans today who, for example, turn on Facebook Live or other technologies when they are pulled over by the police and may encounter racism in their everyday life with authority figures. To use these technologies to surveil the authorities may also inhibit some forms of racism beyond the incident at hand. The pulling out of one’s phone in the face of an authority figure is therefore a form of activism that has broader implications of saying to authority figures that they can be subject to being surveilled in unexpected ways.
Given my work in race and racism, I do think forms of sousveillance can help expose white supremacy/racism and challenge racial inequality. I am optimistic that forms of sousveillance that involve everyday technologies by everyday people can have real impacts and can make a difference in terms of combating racial inequalities. Everyday forms of racism in the U.S. committed by authority figures from the police to government officials can be called out via videos on social media. The concept of sousveillance is all about people that have authority and those that do not and really changing the relationship and flipping it upside down. If those historically marginalized feel they are able to document incidents of everyday racism and then find an audience online whether that is on YouTube on Facebook or elsewhere can also be empowering. If their images are circulated on Instagram, Twitter, or WeChat, there is a tremendous potential not only for local circulation within a community but also wider international circulation and this can also translate to visibility by journalists who are able to then highlight these incidents. This can bring racist incidents to public attention and hold those responsible to task and can have real effects in combating white supremacy and other forms of racism.