There are a flurry of sites dedicated to doing exactly this.
Andrew Ti answers questions at Yo Is This Racist? by strictly adhering to the belief that the only appropriate reaction to racism is a profanity-laced verbal smackdown followed by complete and utter social dismissal.
There is also the Public Shaming tumblr which collects screen shots of people saying horrible things followed by them saying other horrible things that demonstrate their utter blindness to hypocrisy and privilege, for example:
OSU Haters is a tumblr that's dedicated to exposing the racism and bigotry among the OSU student body, ostensibly to point out the problem and promote solutions to it.
Public shaming also played a large role in the exposure of those horribly racist tweets following The Hunger Games premiere when people were outraged that Rue was black. In that case, Jezebel compiled a list of the offending tweeters, complete with full screen names.
Probably bolstered by the popularity of that post, Jezebel recently ran a post that went viral featuring a list of racist tweets on the night President Barack Obama was re-elected.
The author of that post then took the online shaming into the real world when she began calling the schools of those who posted the racist tweets (most of them were teenagers) and asked their principals if they knew about them. She reasoned that this was no free speech violation because "while the First Amendment protects their freedom of speech, it doesn't protect them from the consequences that might result from expressing their opinions. "
Some drew comparisons between this public outing and the one that revealed the identity of offensive Reddit user Michael Brutsch (also Gawker's doing) and the law student who lost her cushy clerkship position after being outed as the author of a racist email.
Why Do We Read These?
I'll be the first to admit to you that I read Yo, Is this Racist? on a regular basis and find the entire premise behind the Public Shaming tumblr pretty amusing. I believe whole-heartedly that words have meaning and that you should be aware of the way you are impacting the world around you through the words you use.
More than that, though, I believe that bigotry and prejudice has to be examined. I think that we can exist in bubbles of society where our prejudicial thoughts are too easily accepted. Left unexamined, they grow from passing thoughts to firmly held beliefs, beliefs that we act on and use to shape our realities. I think it's important that we bring those ideas out into the light of day and show just how fast they fall apart.
Does public shaming do that, though?
Is Jezebel "Doing Antiracism Wrong"?
Gene Demby of PostBourgie certainly thinks so. He writes that this type of public shaming:
bolsters the idea that racism is a terrible personal failing that can be corrected through sufficient public shaming. This notion of racists-as-evil is so pervasive that few people who readily espouse bigoted beliefs would recognize those ideas as racist; unsurprisingly, people don’t like to think themselves monsters.And that's a problem.
If the bar for not being racist is set so low that simply not screaming the n-word at people qualifies you, we've got a problem.
If the bar for not being sexist is set so low that it means not physically assaulting women in the street, we've got a problem.
If the bar for not being _____ist is set so low that it means we won't have to examine all of the ways that we enact those prejudices on a daily basis, we've got a very big problem.
These posts are most certainly popular. The Jezebel post of the racist Obama tweets circulated around the internet quickly. Demby suggests that people liked reading it because it allowed them to pat themselves on the back over their own racial consciousness. "See! I would never call the President the n-word. Look at how enlightened I am!"
In the comments of his crosspost on Racialicious, Demby pointed out that "Schadenfreude seems to be a big part of what's motivating the put-them-on-blast contingent."
Laughing to Keep From Crying
Sometimes humor is the best defense mechanism we have. When people took to Bic's Amazon reviews to mock the sexism in their pens "For Her," they were laughing at prejudice. When people read some of these public shaming sites and find humor in them, it's often a way to deflect the pain that prejudice causes.
What happens when we're laughing at a prejudice that we are not ourselves victims of, though? Do I--a straight, white woman--have the right to laugh at the absurdity of a homophobic or racist position? Because I do. In fact, I can provide specific examples of me doing both of those things just in the past week.
I watched this video of gay men saying they'll marry all the straight men's girlfriends if they don't allow gay marriage:
I also watched this Key and Peele "Suburban Zombies clip:
Both of them take up bigotry and turn it into a comical portrayal. In laughing at it, am I trying to make myself non-complicit in the perpetuation of these prejudices? Am I trying to make myself feel better about existing in a world where intolerance is so common? And how does that operate in the way that shame functions? If we pass around lists of people to be shamed for our own entertainment, are we trying to let ourselves off the hook?
Shame and Culpability
I'm probably going to keep laughing at absurd displays of bigotry. I'm definitely going to keep crying over them. Equality is an important enough goal for me that it will run the gamut of my emotions.
But that brings us to a question: does shame have a place in meeting equality goals?
If we are going to try to rid our society of this kind of bigotry, we have to call it out when we see it. I don't think that politely nodding and trying to avoid eye contact while an acquaintance makes a racist/sexist/ableist/etc. joke is doing anyone any favors. I think that we have a responsibility, as individuals, to point out prejudice when it occurs.
If that's true, then why shouldn't we use the tools of the internet to do it all the more effectively? If calling someone out for using a racial slur is the right thing to do, then why isn't posting someone's racist tweet for the world to see also the right thing to do?
Maybe it is.
Demby's real issue is that Gawker (in his view) overstepped their bounds and called the kids' schools. He points out several times that these people are minors, and that journalistic integrity would normally not even allow their names to be made public, let alone to have their principals called.
Are these children to be held less accountable for their actions because of their age? Sure, they didn't have a lucrative clerkship waiting for them or a disturbing following of sexual deviants on Reddit, but they could have someday. Children are people, too, and children who are willing to tweet racial epithets about the President are likely to grow up into people with influence who have learned to keep their racist thoughts a little more hidden.
So, here's where I'm at with this. I do think that shame has a role in the way we control our social norms. Shame is a powerful tool, and it's something that we use to keep our own actions in check all the time. The source of that shame varies immensely. Maybe we are shamed before God, or our parents, or our boss.
But shame, ultimately, has to come from ourselves. We cannot be forced to feel shame.
Consider the woman who was ordered by a judge to stand in the street hold a sign saying "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a schoolbus" after she did exactly that. The judge was obviously trying to instill a sense of shame, but only the woman herself could make his attempts effective. If she didn't feel shame (and many suggest that she didn't look contrite, as she was smoking and chatting on a cell phone during most of her "punishment"), then the judge's attempts were for naught.
So, sure, we can pass around pictures of people tweeting racist things. This will remind us that bigotry is far from over. We do not live in a post-racial world. We also do not live in a world free of sexism, abelism, homophobia, or a host of other prejudices. Reminding ourselves of that, especially when we're not the victims of those prejudices ourselves, can be a good thing.
But we have to remember that that reminder is the starting point, not the end game. We do not fight bigotry by pointing out it exists; we just point out that there's a fight to have.
We can't shame those people. They can only shame themselves, and until we have created a world where our discussions about prejudice are open enough to create spaces in which bigots can and will feel shame, all we're doing is patting ourselves on the back for avoiding that particular act of bigotry ourselves, likely while committing other ones that we refuse to recognize.