“I am a brother.” 3 tips on how to avoid a racially tone-deaf social media disaster like the one from the University of Missouri

Watching my alma maters compete for supremacy in an arena of national attention is usually fun for me, but not this month:

UW-Madison: We built a homecoming video where we cut out all the video involving people of color who agreed to be filmed for it. No way anyone could screw up a situation like this worse than we did.

University of Missouri: Hold my beer.

(CNN)The University of Missouri Athletic Department is apologizing for a tweet it says was meant to celebrate diversity but was instead criticized as insensitive.

The tweet posted Wednesday included graphics of three student athletes and a staff member. Two are black and two are white.

The graphics featuring the white athletes highlighted their career ambitions. Gymnast Chelsey Christensen’s said, “I am a future doctor.” Swimmer CJ Kovac’s said, “I am a future corporate financer.”
Staff member Chad Jones-Hicks’ post said, “I value equality.” Track and field athlete Arielle Mack’s said “I am an African American Woman.”
The post was criticized on social media for defining Mack and Jones-Hicks by their race instead of their goals and accomplishments.
The athletic department deleted the tweet Wednesday night and apologized.

Yes, it really was that bad…


In other words, “Look at all the cool stuff we get to do as white people!” and “Look! We’re black!” aren’t exactly interchangeable concepts.

And when you think it can’t get any worse…


I kept thinking, “This one has to be an internet spoof version, right? Nobody thinks, ‘Hey let’s call the black guy ‘a brother’ and see what we can get away with…'”

Nope, it’s real, leading me to ask the same question this person asked on Twitter:


(Hell, you could have run this past Breckin Meyer’s character in “Go” and HE would have caught it…)

The athletic department tweeted out an apology for its actions, which led more people to complain about how tone deaf THAT was as well.

This kind of “someone does something horrible they didn’t see coming, particularly in regard to race” has become kind of a repeating theme on the blog. Although we talked about ways to avoid this kind of thing when we discussed the “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sweatshirt issue, consider these key points again:

Paranoia is your BEST friend: A great line about one of the greatest hockey coaches guides my actions in journalism quite a bit. After his team had won a national championship, a friend found him emotionally drained sitting quietly away from the celebration. The writer remarked, “They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.” Maybe that seems sad, but that approach keeps your keester out of a lot of trouble.

As we noted the last time we covered this: Murphy’s Law includes the famous line about “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” so it’s always best to plan for the worst. When you find yourself putting together ANYTHING that will be disseminated to the general public, you want to engage in some active paranoia. Read every word as if it might have a double meaning or if a misspelling might lead to an awkward moment (e.g. “Bill Smith, a pubic librarian, reads…”).

Look at every image you have to see if anything could be misconstrued in a negative way or would cast aspersions on an individual or group. Go through every potential stereotype you can think of in your head and see if something looks like it might be playing into that stereotype (e.g., Is a blond woman shown to be less intelligent? Did you put a person of color into a “monkey” sweatshirt?). Approach your work in this way and you will not always succeed, but you can avoid a lot of failure.

Ask for help: As we noted during the sweatshirt debacle, diversity is not a buzzword. The goal of having a wide array of perspectives and a diverse collection of people with different experiences is to allow a fuller examination of bigger issues.

Even if your newsroom, your PR firm or your ad agency doesn’t have a cornucopia of diversity, you can still avoid dumb mistakes by asking for help. Call a friend who knows the topic better than you. Ask a source who is involved in the topic for a quick read. Talk to an expert on the issue with whom you worked on an earlier project. You probably know someone out there who has a connection to almost any topic if you think about it hard enough.

To be fair, I’m usually the person seeking help in this regard because I’m your garden-variety straight, white male, but what I have found is that most people are happy to help if you are honest, humble and forthright. The earnest gesture of, “I don’t understand X but I really don’t want to screw it up,” tends work when you approach people from varied backgrounds. I have asked all sorts of questions when it came to faith, race, gender, LGBTQ issues and more using that approach and I can’t ever remember being yelled at or shamed.

(I do remember once going to see the Kevin Smith movie “Dogma” with a group of friends, none of whom were Catholic. At about a dozen points in the movie, one of them would ask a question about something that just happened and I’d give a quick answer with a promise to explain more later. About halfway through the movie, my friend, Adam, leaned over to me and whispered, “Now you know what it’s like for me, being the only Jew in the newsroom, when we’re covering Passover.” Point taken.)

Know where the landmines are: This one is a direct pull from the sweatshirt post, but it bears repeating. I still ascribe to the Fred Vultee Theory of Drowning, which states you should treat EVERY piece of copy like it could come back to kill you. That said, the level of extreme care should jump up a few notches from the caution I employ in fixing the garbage disposal and the caution I would employ in disarming a nuclear warhead.

Some things just have much lower margins for error, have far higher consequences and are far more likely to kill you. In terms of the United States, gender, race and sexual orientation are the issues that lead to a lot of “Oh, crap, how did we write THAT?” apologies than many other topics. If you know that going in, you can game up a little bit more than normal when you start working on something in that area. It’s a lot like driving through Rosendale: I always try to adhere to the speed limit, give or take 5 mph. However, when I hit the Rosendale city limits, I’m ALWAYS driving 27 in a 30 because I know what I’m getting into.

In the end, you might not avoid every problem, but you’ll do a lot better in avoiding the really stupid ones.


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