Initiating social change through anti-racism films on social media, our project addresses online racism, surveys experiences, and explores resistance strategies.

Anti-racism education through social media films: Turning vitriol into strength

Brandon Univ's Canada study on online racism surveys experiences, explores resistance strategies. Can promoting anti-racism films on social media be effective?

The issue with anti-racism educational initiatives lies in their tendency to preach to the converted. Certainly, there is always more to learn, and everyone can gain from continued engagement with anti-racism education. However, some questions remain: what about those who shun these spaces? Where might they acquire this knowledge? How can they start to challenge the notions they previously accepted as truth?

Could social media be a catalyst for positive change?

In 2020, our team initiated a film project aimed at combating racism, educating the public, and fostering positive social change via social media platforms. Our goal was to illuminate disparities between various groups and stimulate dialogue on the subject using the comment features of social media sites. Research on social media indicates a correlation between hate crimes and the amount of time spent on specific websites.

Notably, social media has been convincingly demonstrated to serve as a conduit for the propagation of violence and hate crimes. Recruitment methods, including websites and social media platforms, are effectively employed by white supremacist groups to enlist new members. Consequently, an anti-racism initiative that operates within these same domains and utilises similar methods was deemed necessary.

Initiating social change through anti-racism films on social media, our project addresses online racism, surveys experiences, and explores resistance strategies.
Credit. Midjourney

Survey to screen: Mixed methods and analysis

We commenced with a survey of 500 individuals within our province, Manitoba, Canada. The survey included both quantitative queries on attitudes toward diversity and qualitative inquiries into personal experiences of racism. In our concluding question, we invited participants to recount an instance when they had observed or encountered racism in the preceding 12 months.

Drawing from the recurrent themes in these accounts, we collaboratively authored four screenplays. Focus groups then reviewed these before we engaged filmmakers to produce the films. All of the filmmakers were individuals with lived experiences related to the racism being depicted in their films, which added another layer of authenticity to the scripts. Following a subsequent round of focus groups, we prepared to disseminate the films via social media. Additionally, we conscientiously deliberated on the ethics of publicising such personal narratives in open forums.

The films amassed over half a million views, predominantly on YouTube and TikTok. This visibility sparked active discussions in the online comment sections, which featured a mix of positive and negative reactions. Through analysing these interactions, we identified critical strategies that individuals employ both to resist anti-racist education and to challenge such resistance.

Navigating the conveyor belt of online racism: Identifying resistance strategies and promoting learning opportunities

For instance, common pushback strategies we identified included defensiveness, blame-shifting, allegations of reverse racism, and explicit expressions of white supremacy. Instances of fear-mongering and the reinforcement of stereotypes were also observed. Commenters frequently offered unsolicited and detrimental guidance, invoking religious and pseudoscientific justifications for racism or advising individuals to work harder and be more appreciative. Conversely, we noted instances where commenters utilised these online platforms to disrupt racist and hateful discourse, raise awareness, educate others, exhibit resilience, and exchange personal stories.

Drawing on Tatum’s metaphor, which likens the persistent current of racism to a moving walkway at an airport, we conceptualised this racism as a conveyor belt that transports social media users into realms where racism thrives. We also depicted the efforts required to move against this prevailing tide actively.

The craft of educating for anti-racism: Dialogue, awareness, and self-care

Addressing an issue as entrenched as racism necessitates public awareness and a readiness to admit complicity within a system that privileges and benefits some at the detriment of others. This endeavour requires a forum where individuals can express themselves, scrutinise opinions, and partake in dialogue. Online platforms, such as social media, facilitate these discussions in an anonymous setting, which mitigates barriers by enabling people to articulate their experiences and elevate their consciousness of systemic problems without fear of reprisal.

A notable challenge for numerous anti-racist initiatives is that they often enlighten the privileged at the cost of the marginalised. There is a pronounced need for campaigns that do not impose additional burdens on already-disadvantaged groups. While these burdens are still present, our project helped meet the need to reduce the load on anti-racist educators by addressing both imperatives: it heightened awareness of systemic challenges and fostered discourse and education in spheres not commonly associated with anti-racist scholarly work.

If anti-racism entails learning to resist the ‘current’ of racism and white supremacy within online environments, then prioritising self-care and support for those who stand against the onslaught of defensiveness, blame, fear, and detrimental advice in these forums is crucial. Recognising this, our team developed comprehensive toolkits accompanying each film, as well as a facilitation guide detailing how to utilise these films for professional development and educational purposes.

While transforming deep-seated racial biases with a 5-minute film may seem improbable, such efforts are nonetheless vital in confronting and disrupting racism, as evidenced by the reactions of commenters to these films. Through educational engagement, sharing of personal stories, challenging hate, and fostering awareness, they confronted racism and carved out avenues for continued education.

Funding for this project was made possible through Brandon University and the Government of Canada.


Journal reference

Lam, M., Spence, S., Mayuom, A., Humphreys, D., & Osiname, A. (2023). Diminishing defensiveness in anti-racist discourse: Common pushbacks to online anti-racism content and suggestions for strategic maneuvers. Equity in Education & Society, 27526461231206407.

Michelle Lam, Ph.D., is the director of BU CARES and a member of Curriculum and Pedagogy at Brandon University.

Stephanie Spence is a third-year student in the Department of Psychiatric Nursing at Brandon University and a research assistant at BU CARES.

Akech Mayuom, BA, BScPN, RPN, is a registered psychiatric nurse working in northern Manitoba in community mental health.

Denise Humphreys, BSW, is a master’s student in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Manitoba.

Ayodeji Osiname, Ph.D., is a faculty member in Leadership and Educational Administration at Brandon University.