Social media conversations on race typically take one of two routes.
The first, and the one less traveled, leads to a thoughtful, fact-driven exchange of ideas. The second (more popular) route leads to bitter back-and-forth filled with tired stereotypes or racially inflammatory barbs.
But now, when discussion swerves in the second direction, there’s a group of white allies prepared to do the rerouting.
White Nonsense Roundup is a social media watchdog group with about 100 white volunteers. Its goal: to relieve people of color from the emotional labor of engaging with a person’s racist or racially insensitive thoughts.
Say, a person of color makes a post about Black Lives Matter. Then others respond with ignorant or offensive comments. That person can tag White Nonsense RoundUp to snatch some edges – or, better put, to educate people with context and fact-based views.
Think of it like roadside assistance for social media debates you’re tired of having.
“It’s really unfair that we expect people of color to experience racism, but then also explain it to us,” the group’s co-founder Terri Kempton, a book editor and college instructor, told CNN.
How it started
After Philando Castile’s killing in 2016, Kempton saw a need for proactive involvement by white people like herself in conversations about race.
“I think, as white people, we are taught that intentions are all that matters,” Kempton said. “We think that if our hearts are in the right places and we consciously doubt racism, we’re good to go. So that was a light-bulb moment to me, where I didn’t think intentions are enough.”
So, she approached another white friend, Layla Tromble, and together they launched White Nonsense Roundup on Facebook, Twitter and later Instagram.
“I thought, ‘What about if we take on some of that emotional labor or burden?’” Kempton said. “Because white people are responsible for talking to other white people about racism.”
Their idea worked. Since its launch, White Nonsense RoundUp has gained more than 138,000 followers across its different accounts.
One of them is Kevin Tillman, an educator in Oakland, California, who says he uses the service almost every day. Tillman, 40, is a leader in the vegan hip-hop movement and often encounters trolls online.
“It’s inspiring. I really appreciate the work that they’re doing and I steadily promote them,” he said. “And the reality is white folks will sooner listen to them. They’re handling things people of color have been handling all our lives.”
Chenoa Alamu discovered White Nonsense RoundUp when she came across one of their posts that said it’s not the job of black people to educate white people.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was such a breath of fresh air,” said Alamu, a violinist in Springfield, Illinois.
“I feel strong enough and have felt strong enough to have conversations about race on my own. But I was getting tired,” she said. “When I saw the (White Nonsense RoundUp) post, that’s when I was like, ‘Phew, finally somebody white who gets it … someone willing to carry the burden of racism.’”
The arguments they hear the most
When a volunteer receives a tag notification, they read through the conversation in question and spend time figuring out the best approach. This one dialogue can last a volunteer’s entire two-hour shift or it could be one of several conversations they tackle.
Volunteers pretty much see the same well-trodden claims or ideas time and time again in some form or another, Kempton said.
There are some old standbys like, “I’m not racist because I don’t see color,” or, “Well, I don’t personally act racist.”
More specific topics also get trotted out: “Cultural appropriation isn’t real,” “I don’t have white privilege because of [x],” “Why is it always about race?” and the particularly thorny refrain, “All Lives Matter.”
Occasionally, volunteers receive private messages from other white people asking for guidance on a topic or resources to get educated on their own time.
Sometimes those questions stump the volunteers and founders. In those moments, the group relies on its advisory council – a group of 9-10 people of color that offer guidance and help plan next steps.
How they keep in good faith
With so many eyes on them, White Nonsense RoundUp only brings on white people who know their stuff. There are no training wheels.
Before they are hired each potential volunteer must provide personal information and respond to four problematic statements in a “firm but compassionate fashion” – that’s a key to the group’s mission. They’re not out to own trolls, they’re out to educate and engage.
Volunteers also submit their social media links for a thorough search, the group says.
If everything checks out to the group’s standards, the new volunteer is added to the roster. Each is asked to work a two-hour shift a week, but many choose to do more. The group has volunteers across the country.
Another key to their mission? Stay in the designated lane. Regardless of expertise and enthusiasm, White Nonsense Roundup only pops in when it’s invited through a tag. And it leaves a thread when it’s clear a troll isn’t invested in learning or when the original poster asks the group to stop.
“We’re very aware of the tendency of white activists to center ourselves, so we’re careful not to pretend we’re white saviors,” Kempton said.
The group uses published resources, analogies and other rhetorical and educational tools to support their arguments. Many times, rather than riff with their own take, volunteers try to use learning materials already produced by people of color.
You won’t see individual profiles within White Nonsense RoundUp, either. Volunteers assume anonymity under the group’s social media handle. It’s a precaution to protect the safety and privacy of volunteers, and also to ensure the genuine nature of the work they do.
“The anonymity of the volunteers removes any temptation for individuals to seek credit, because it’s not about that,” Kempton said. “There’s no white person you need to thank or hand a cookie, it’s just part of the service.”
And it’s a service Kempton hopes curbs the “exhausting” nature of educating white people from a person of color’s standpoint.
“At the very least, we want to be white people on the record, standing up against racism.”
Their users are grateful. Some want to spread the conversation to the offline world as well.
“They do a great job,” said Alamu, the violinist from Illinois. “I’ve even had people ask, ‘Can they come to my job?’”
CNN’s Paul Martucci contributed to this piece.