The Echo Chamber: A Look at UAlbany

Please note: This article is not funny. Usually I write about funny things, like Donald Trump suing me or North Korea tweeting at me. This one is serious. I’ll write another funny thing next week, or the week after…or the week after.

If you’re a University at Albany student or alum, you’ve more than likely been following the ongoing saga surrounding an alleged racially motivated incident on a CDTA bus that’s now being reported as false.

In the days following the alleged attack, I personally remained silent on social media. My silence was not reflective of apathy or a lack of care for the victims of the alleged attack, but rather reflective of my understanding that my voice was not needed in the discussions happening. What could I possibly add to the dialogue? What would a post of support for the victims really amount to? What would be gained by me saying “wait for all of the facts?” Nothing. So I remained silent.

Beneath my silence was horror. When I first heard about the alleged incident, I didn’t think: That could never happen here! Because the truth is that it could happen here, it has happened here, and it will happen here again. It may not be on the news, the victim may not report it, and there may not be a rally showing support, but racism exists on every university campus — including ours.

The Racial Gap

I’ve never felt the effects of racism. As such, it’s difficult for me to imagine what it feels like to experience racism. I’ve never been watched in a store while I shop. I’ve never had a problem getting a cab after a night at the bars. I’ve never been passed over for an opportunity I deserved.

When I hear about racism happening, I sometimes subconsciously question the claims: Are you sure that’s why they were watching you in the store? Maybe the cab was going to pick someone else up. Was the other person more qualified?

Instead of accepting these things as acts of racism — which I’ve never experienced — I relate them to my experiences. My experience is that, if someone is watching me in a store, it’s not because they think I’m going to steal something. If a cab drives past me, it’s not because they didn’t want to pick me up. If I’m not given an opportunity, it’s because someone else was more qualified.

We naturally relate stories we hear to our experiences, even though the experiences of a white person and a black person are completely different. Sure, sometimes a cab drives past a person of color because they’re going to pick someone else up. But every time? Most of the time?

When three black women on a CDTA bus are attacked and say it was racially motivated, it’s easy for me — a white male — to think: Well, what did they do? Let’s wait for the facts. Because for me to get attacked, usually I’d have to do something. I’d have to say something provocative. I’d have to push someone. I’d have to be the instigator.

Beneath my silence was horror. Horror that I truly believed a racially motivated attack could happen at UAlbany while I simultaneously questioned the reported incident: Well, what did they do? Let’s wait for the facts. I accepted the premise but questioned the story. Why?

The Echo Chamber

This racial gap is widened by the echo chamber of social media. Each of us has accumulated friends on Facebook who largely reinforce our beliefs. My friends are mostly white, and mostly liberal. On Twitter, it’s even worse — I follow blogs and commentators I know share my views. I like hearing that I’m right, and Republicans are wrong. We all like hearing that we’re right.

This echo chamber creates a disproportional sense of importance. What seems important on my news feed is hardly mentioned on yours, and what is important on your news feed isn’t even mentioned on mine.

People who were outraged by the alleged CDTA bus incident are likely to be connected to one another. People who actively questioned the validity of the claims are likely to be connected to one another. While there is certainly some overlap between the two groups, there isn’t much. Post after post, the outraged became more outraged, and the skeptics became more skeptical.

Now, with news that the alleged incident may not have happened, the skeptics are outraged and the outraged are skeptics. You can’t blame either group: each are rightfully angry about something.

The Availability Heuristic

Defined as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic,” the availability heuristic explains my deepest concern about the aftermath of this alleged incident.

Let’s say that the incident didn’t happen the way it was first reported, which a recent news stories suggests. Now, if a racially motivated attack occurs on UAlbany’s campus, I fear people won’t believe it just because this one recent case — which was highlighted by media outlets driven by clicks and ratings — happened to be false.

This one incident may not have occurred, but it could have. This one incident may not have occurred, but it has. This one incident may not have occurred, but it will.

The Actions of a Few

In situations like this, it’s crucial to remember that the actions of a few should not define an entire population. Most claims of racism aren’t falsified. Most cops aren’t cold blooded killers. Most Republicans aren’t terrible people. Okay, that last one may not be true, but you get the point.

We can’t let small groups of people control the narrative. We need to be aware of each other, of each other’s experiences, and have constructive conversations. Some may criticize UAlbany’s President for his swift response to these allegations now that they are being called into question. But for the past few semesters — before this entire situation occurred — President Jones has been hosting “Critical Conversations” surrounding topics of race in America. This topic isn’t new to him by any means.

President Jones is the son of sharecroppers and grew up in the deep south in the 1950′s. The racism he has surely experienced in his life is beyond anything I can even imagine. The calls for him to apologize, to me, are a joke. Should he have used the word allegedly? Yes. But his experiences told him this sort of thing could happen. He’s seen it. He’s lived it.

If they were lying, the actions of these few women set back the very movement they co-opted. The outraged are now more outraged. The skeptics are now more skeptical. But I challenge you to be mindful of the racial gap. Be aware of the echo chamber. Avoid the availability heuristic. Don’t let the actions of a few define the rest.


Originally published at www.sometimesweekly.com.