Vine creates platform for racial stereotypes to perpetuate
Whether you're an active participant or simply a curious follower, it's becoming increasingly difficult to go a full 24 hours without checking up on some form of social media. The new app Vine has earned a spot at the social media "cool kid's table" alongside Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. Owned and operated by the same folks who created Twitter, Vine is "a mobile service that lets you capture and share short looping videos. Like Tweets, the brevity of videos on Vine (6 seconds or less) inspires creativity," according to the Vine website. Vine allows individuals to share personal experiences whenever they want for free and aims to highlight the universality of these common events.
The result is usually a hilariously relatable six-second clip with a built-in repeat button-operating on the assumption that you'll want to re- watch the clip again and again ...and again. Popular Vines range from cats jumping into toilets to videos of friends slapping each other in surprising ways. However, mixed into this world of funny pet videos and public humiliation is a genre of videos that is totally founded on racial stereotypes. I'm all for inspiring creativity, but I have a hard time ignoring the resurgence of racism that the Vine community seems to be fostering. Some of the most popular Vines harp on common stereotypes, such as Asians being good at math, African-Americans preferring fried chicken and Kool-Aid to other snacks and ethnic minorities running away any time they hear a police siren.
In fact, there's an entire channel of Vines devoted to "Black People vs. White People," and these videos often rank in the most viewed Vines on the app. Monthly compilations of the "Best Vines" highlight Vines entitled, "White Moms vs. Black Moms" and "How Asian kids wake up" as well as "white girlfriends be like.." It's also true that these popular videos capitalize on sexist tropes, but I'll focus on racism here. Vine provides a forum for viewers to post, comment, like, "re-vine" and popularize negative stereotypes along racial lines. This new platform, coupled with modern Internet culture, blurs the line between Internet success and traditional celebrity. People will do whatever it takes to acquire followers and "likes." And apparently, easy-to-recognize stereotypes are the key to instant Vine popularity.
Some people might argue that Vine is the perfect platform to laugh at harmless stereotypes. Vine users might protest that these short clips aren't hurting anyone and that individuals who take offense are just overly politically correct. It's true that these Vines can be funny-because many of the creators are talented, or at least enthusiastic. But something more complicated is at play here. As a white, American and middle-class woman, do I have the right to laugh at a Vine displaying African-American stereotypes? Furthermore, does anyone have the right to laugh at these controversial depictions of ethnic identity? My gut reaction is no. In my mind, laughing at this category of Vines perpetuates age-old stereotypes. It's also worth noting that Vine isn't a novel example of racism penetrating the Internet. But there's something about the nature of these looping videos that sets Vine apart from racist memes, derogatory Facebook pages, hateful YouTube videos and other examples of racially charged social media. Vine is different because its format is especially created for sharing short bursts of creativity-some are improvised and casual, others clearly painstakingly planned. No matter how much thought went into them, as soon as Vines enter the world, they repeat endlessly for anyone to see. This is the Internet at the height of its creative potential-an infinite number of people can get an endless six seconds of fame.
Part of Vine's mass appeal is this accessibility. Anyone can post a video to Vine, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. But the democratic nature of the medium makes it hard to differentiate between individual representations of identity and racialized generalizations about entire groups of people designed to solicit "re-vines." Are these old stereotypes so popular on Vine because they resonate as somehow truthful for people in their own lives? Or are these short reminders of racist boundaries popular because people can instantly recognize them, laugh and move on in the narrow time frame?
Scholars suggest that the definition of ethnic identity reinvents itself in response to different eras of American history. Negative stereotypes thrust upon African-Americans correspond historically with a complete disregard for the development of African-American identity. Modern ethnic and racial identity is no longer confined to historically assigned stereotypes. For the most part, individuals have the opportunity to pick and choose which aspects of their ethnicity they wish to flaunt or hide. However, this reinvention of ethnic identity as a voluntary self-representation does not correspond with the continued use of inflammatory racial tropes showcased on Vine. Wouldn't it be great if Americans took advantage of Vine and used it as a tool to push past age-old stereotypes and produce Vines that don't revolve around reductive conversations on race?
Vine offers individuals the chance to share personal and accurate representations of culture in an easy-to-digest way. And most of all, Vine is fun. But just because it's fun doesn't mean it has to be lazy and ignorant.
Americans should take a closer look at Vine if they ever think that racism in this country has disappeared. In this sea of looping videos, we can all see an endless repetition of old racist ideas. Instead of just adding to the chorus of reinforced stereotypes, some of us should add different voices to the mix. Maybe our voices can shift the conversation on race to something that deserves repeating.
Editor's note: This article was originally written for "AMST 55: Race, Ethnicity and Immigration in American Culture."