Communication Currents

Understanding Twitter Racism: The 2014 Miss America Pageant

August 1, 2015
Intercultural Communication

When Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, was crowned the winner of the 2014 Miss America pageant, her selection was notable because she became the first Indian American to win the title. Her victory was also notable because it led to a firestorm of objectionable communication on Twitter. While much of the mainstream media celebrated her winning the Miss America title, many on Twitter had a very different reaction. Their tweets were explicitly racist, attacking Davuluri and circulating stereotypes about Indian Americans, Arab Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities. The firestorm surrounding Davuluri’s victory was so pronounced that the tweets themselves became the object of media coverage.

The backlash surrounding the 2014 Miss America is just one example of regular, recurring controversies about racist or objectionable comments on social media. In our study, we attempted to understand what these types of controversies have to say about understandings of race and ethnicity in the United States, as well as the role of Twitter and other social media in society. What does the presence of explicitly racist comments on Twitter and other social media have to say about the understanding of the United States as a so-called “post-racial” society? Why does Twitter create a space for blatantly racist comments we do not normally hear in face-to-face communication?

To understand the racist tweets about the selection of Nina Davuluri as the 2014 Miss America, we distinguished between “old racism” and “new racism.” The rhetoric of old racism explicitly posits whiteness as normative or superior in relation to other racial groups. In contrast, new racism embraces color-blindness and a focus on individuality, while accepting the contemporary racial order that privileges some groups over others. The Miss America pageant, which at one point was restricted only to whites and now bills itself as representing the multicultural equality of the United States, offers an interesting example of this shift. 

Despite cultural norms against “old” forms of racist expression, the controversial tweets after Davuluri was chosen as the 2014 Miss America employed explicit racial stereotypes, exclusion, and racial superiority. Some conflated her Asian Indian background with being a Muslim and/or an Arab, or speculated that Davuluri was a terrorist. Other tweets suggested that someone who was Indian American was not a “true” American and thus should not be eligible to be Miss America. Finally, some tweets emphasized stereotypes of Indian Americans, such as working at 7-Eleven stores.

In all of these ways, the tweets surrounding the crowning of Davuluri as the 2014 Miss America circulated elements of what we called “old racism.” These categories all disqualified Davuluri (and any other woman who is Asian, Indian, Muslim, Arab, and so on) from being Miss America based upon assumptions about what an “American” is and should be. Although it is difficult to discern humor in tweets, which are limited to 140 characters, some of these tweets seemed to try to humorously play with these stereotypes. Ultimately, however, this kind of humor still relied on “old” understandings such as racial stereotypes and superiority.

In reading these tweets, we also noted a large pushback from other Twitter users who argued against this older form of racist discourse. These users tended to call out the original tweeters as racist. Ironically, however, the sanctioning of objectionable tweets actually employed the rhetoric of “new” racism, or what some call “color-blind” racism. These counter-tweeters shamed and criticized those who tweeted blatantly racist comments, but in doing so they worked with the idea that racism was an individual attitude, a form of backwardness or ignorance, the vestiges of which had to be eliminated so we could embrace our truly “color-blind” era. These Twitter users celebrated Davuluri’s victory as proof that America had moved beyond race and had become post-racial. The problem with this view was that it presented racismsolely as an individual pathology, ignoring all of the structural ways that racial inequality and oppression continue to affect U.S. society. 

In addition to teasing out the ways that racism played out in this controversy, our interest was in exploring how and why these types of unsanctioned and “old” forms of racist expression were circulated on Twitter. We argued that Twitter (and potentially other social media) enabled the return of the rhetoric of old racism to the public arena. In particular, we explored two ideas that might explain how Twitter allows older and unsanctioned forms of racist discourse: “context collapse” and “publicized privacy.” 

Context collapse” describes the way that social media like Twitter lack a clear delineation of the context of communication. Tweets are not directed to particular audiences in the ways that someone might make racist comments or racist jokes among a carefully selected and “safe” audience. Tweets exist in both a specific context of those who are like-minded tweeters, in a public context viewable by anyone, and in all kinds of specific contexts the Twitter user did not anticipate.

Because of context collapse, tweets lack much of the context that can be important in interpreting communication. Therefore, whether the tweets are seen as offensive jokes or as serious hateful messages intended for a very specific audience, the context collapse of Twitter meant that acontextual audiences received the objectionable tweets. Audiences are flattened on Twitter, which means that tweets are not always shaped by traditional notions of adaptation to audience, geographic, social, temporal, or other contexts.

In addition to context collapse, social media like Twitter blur the distinction between public and private, or what is called “publicized privacy.” Even when you tweet “at” someone, that tweet is not private, as it is visible to the public. Tweets are sent out to the public and read by anyone who wants to read the tweets. In this sense, some of the Miss America tweets may have been considered as more private communication, but, because it is a “publicized private” space, Twitter is not set up that way.

The ideas of publicized privacy and context collapse help to explain what it is about social media like Twitter that creates the conditions for unsanctioned forms of racist or other objectionable speech. In this context, we suggest it is important to gain a better understanding of new media culture and the public arena it creates. We need to think more about how new media culture reshapes norms of communication and the contexts for intercultural exchange. New media, as we have seen, does not necessarily result in new ways of thinking about racial differences. Moreover, we need to think more carefully about race and ethnicity in the United States. The controversy over objectionable tweets demonstrates the importance of understanding racism not just as an individual attitude of bigotry or racial hatred, but also as a broader systematic set of advantages and disadvantages that are woven into many aspects of our society and continue to influence racial and ethnic minorities. 

About the author (s)

Josue David Cisneros

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Assistant Professor

Thomas Nakayama

Northeastern University