Is it okay to make fun of white people?

Without evidence that they had any bearing on Jeong’s extensive body of work, which includes a book she wrote about harassment online, these statements could have perhaps been unceremoniously dismissed as insignificant. But after conservative media seized on the story on Thursday, they ignited a firestorm of debate.

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Jeong is the latest in a long line of people to have their old tweets surfaced for scrutiny in connection to a high-profile career assignment. She certainly won’t be the last. In recent weeks, at least four baseball players have been excoriated for old tweets. The writer the Times had tried to hire before Jeong to bulk up its technology writing, Quinn Norton, was let go before she even started, after uproar over remarks she made previously on Twitter, one in which she used a derogatory term for African-Americans, another in which she said she had neo-Nazi friends.

But in the midst of a painful debate about white supremacy and privilege, Jeong’s episode has exposed a deeper rift between some conservatives – whose political ideology has been marked by the rise of a president who has trafficked in racially charged rhetoric and policies – and the left, pointing to a fundamental disagreement about the nature of race and power in the United States.

At right-leaning outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Caller, the Gateway Pundit, Breitbart and Infowars, Jeong’s tweets were skewered as “racist”, “offensive” and “anti-white”.

“Jeong was not hired despite her racist tweets, she was hired because of them,” wrote the right-wing site Infowars, known for its vigorous promotion of conspiracy theories.

To some conservatives, her hiring, and the subsequent defense issued by the Times, was an example of how liberals get away with their own brand of racism – against white people.

“Sarah Jeong not being fired by the New York Times for her racist and hateful tweets is example 93,687,887,482 of liberal hypocrisy,” conservative commentator and occasional conspiracy theorist Mark Dice said.

But others were quick to say that the statements Jeong made could only be skewed as racist if the culture, history and current sociopolitical context of the United States were ignored.

“Part of the reason it was so easy for the outrage to be manufactured in the first place was it was completely decontextualised and ahistorified,” said Nolan L. Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, who will publish a book this year about racial attitudes held by white college students.

“Then it was easy to drum up anger and say it looks like she hates white people. That only makes sense if you are willfully ignorant of 400 to 500 years’ history and contemporary social context and also the context from which the tweets were sent.”

It is likely true, as many pointed out, that if any minority group’s name were substituted in the place of white people into Jeong’s statements, she would not have kept her job.

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Some edited Jeong’s tweets to hammer home that idea, replacing the words “white people” in her tweets with “black people” and “Jewish people” to make the point.

But Cabrera said the idea was “a complete false equivalence”, noting that whiteness isn’t a cultural identity the way being black, Japanese American or Jewish is. Cabrera listed off examples of government policies that targeted various racial groups, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Operation Wetback, calling racism a “systemic reality” that necessarily favours white people.

“You hear that all the time: substitute white and put in minority group x,” he said. “The term racism is not the equivalence of prejudice or bigotry. It’s an analysis of social inequality along the colour lines and an analysis of power dynamics and social oppression. None of which has ever been in the hands of people of colour or communities of colour: there’s never been the social structure to be able to oppress white people.”

Still some conservatives disagreed with that framing, acknowledging that though they were not comparable to white supremacist ideologies, they still should still be considered racism.

“The threat of anti-white racism (except in rare cases) isn’t violence. It’s not systematic oppression. There’s no realistic scenario where ‘the tables are turned’ and black Americans visit on white Americans a reverse version of the worst aspects of American history,” David French wrote in the National Review.

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“The problem with anti-white racism is that it runs directly counter to efforts to unify in spite of that history. It runs counter to efforts to elevate American culture. And, yes, it can and does create individual injustice in those instances where anti-white racism manifests itself in more than just tweets and academic journals.”

Jeong’s episode has also raised complicated questions about the stubborn nature of harassment women of colour face online. In a statement she posted to Twitter on Thursday, Jeong said she regretted the tweets and that they had been made as a satirical response to people who had harassed her because of her race and gender online. She included a screenshot of a racial slurs directed at her online, and said she had used language that “mimicked” her harassers.

This type of harassment, that combines racism and sexism, is something only women of colour experience online, according to Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence against Women.

Social media has created the opportunity for minority communities around the world to connect, but it has also left these groups vulnerable to vicious attacks by anonymous trolls.

“There’s a point where you ask yourself: should you just not say anything or should you speak up about it,” Mitchell said.

US President Donald Trump has trafficked in racially charged rhetoric and policies.

US President Donald Trump has trafficked in racially charged rhetoric and policies.

Photo: AP

The ploys by these anonymous Twitter users vary, Mitchell said, but they often involve threatening children the women may or may not have.

“I hope your kid doesn’t become a hashtag” is a common tweet Mitchell sees.

Sonia Gupta, a software engineer in Colorado with a large Twitter following, experienced this type of harassment this week after sharing an article about “how dangerous and toxic white women are to women of colour”. One tweet stuck out in particular because of threatening statement it included about lynching.

“It’s terrifying to these people who are enraged that we have an equal voice on this platform,” Gupta said.

This kind of harassment knows few limits. A white male writer, Sam Thielman, showcased the racist responses he received after he defended Jeong, from people who thought he was Jewish because of his last name. He later said he is of German descent.

Episodes like Jeong’s are now a regular part of the culture online where petty outrages, stoked by both legitimate emotions and political motivations, can quickly bloom into full controversies, their way smoothed by internet algorithms. Hastily made statements, mistaken and juvenile sentiments and moments of idiocy now live forever online.

The cycle is rapid and routine: the tweets surface, drawing strong reactions, which give them prominence. News organisations take notice and provide coverage accordingly. Sometimes people lose their jobs, like director James Gunn, who Disney fired recently from a high-profile gig at the helm of a Guardians of the Galaxy film after old tweets he made joking about paedophilia circulated.

Many said both Gunn and Jeong’s experiences were reminiscent of#Gamergate, when men targeted women in the video game industry online, and online campaigns waged against journalists by people such as right-wing agitator and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich.

But some organisations are wising up. In addition to the Times, Jeong’s current employer, the technology site The Verge, issued a vigorous defence of her.

“Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda,” the site’s editors said in a statement. “They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation. So we’re not going to fall for these disingenuous tactics. And it’s time other newsrooms learn to spot these hateful campaigns for what they are: attempts to discredit and undo the vital work of journalists who report on the most toxic communities on the Internet.”

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