It was meant to be a destination on the internet where black people could let down their guard.
The forum, one of the many on Reddit, featured a feed of jokes and memes and commentary circulated on social media by black people, and comment threads where discussions could unfold. A post parodied the discomfort many white people seem to feel with the phrase “black lives matter.” Participants riffed on the rapper Kanye West’s suggestion that slavery had lasted too long to have been involuntary. Conversations about topics in the news and personal encounters with racial bias were interspersed with sometimes off-color humor about sex, romance and lifestyle advice.
Given that the vast majority of Reddit users are white, no one seemed to be under the illusion that only black people would weigh in. As one of the forum’s moderators recalled, the thought was that the white users who held sway in nearly all of Reddit’s 157,100 other communities, known as subreddits, would see no need to dominate this one.
The moderators were wrong.
It can be difficult to tell a person’s race on Reddit. Its several hundred million users are known to one another only by their screen names, without the profile pictures and biographies that are typical of other social media sites. That can be a boon to free speech, say proponents of the policy. It also encourages hate speech, detractors maintain.
In the case of the Reddit forum, which was called Black People Twitter, some of the comments appeared to be more an attempt to mock black culture than to appreciate it.
Many black users came to believe that white users were pretending to be black to give their unpopular opinions more credibility. Some of the posts casually dropped racial slurs. Others repeated anti-black stereotypes about crime, parenting and intelligence. Beyoncé was disparaged.
“These people are white,” said Tony Hinderman, 23, a black actor in Chicago. “Black people love Beyoncé. There is nothing to not love about her.”
The weight of unseen white opinion also made itself felt through the Reddit ranking system, in which posts and comments rise or fall in visibility based on users clicking on the “up” or “down” arrows next to each.
Wesley Moreno, who was a moderator of the Black People Twitter forum on Reddit until recently, called disruptive comments posted by white users pretending to be black “a constant form of gaslighting.”Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times
A comment on a post about a first-generation black college student’s entry to Harvard Medical School — “you’ll be attending thanks to affirmative action” — received hundreds of “upvotes” before it was removed by a moderator. In conversations about police violence, allusions to “black on black crime,” carrying the false implication that black people break the law more often, would float to the top.
A discussion meant to be a respite from the racial tensions out in the world began to mirror them.
“It was like a constant form of gaslighting,” said Wesley Moreno, 30, a black information technology professional who until recently served as a moderator of the forum.
‘Isn’t this just racist?’
The first moderator of Black People Twitter was a white Reddit user who had become enamored of the candid perspectives on culture and current events that were circulating among black Twitter users and started posting screenshots of them in late 2014. These days the subreddit is run by a multiracial group of more than two dozen moderators, many of whom are black.
Like all Reddit moderators, they perform tasks like approving posts and banning users; they work without pay, in exchange for mostly free rein to run their subreddit.
The forum grew rapidly to become one of the 50 most active on Reddit, according to Pushshift.io, with tens of thousands of weekly participants and more than half a million readers a day.
But by last spring, it was having increasing problems with violations of its “bad-faith participation” rules. The moderators found themselves shutting down dozens of conversations each week. So they decided on a bold change, one that has unleashed waves of outrage across Reddit for months.
The most heated comment threads, they announced, would give priority to nonwhite participants. Anyone who wished to participate would need to send the moderators a photograph of their forearm, proving they were not white.
Complaints flowed in — from proponents of far-right ideologies, avowed liberals and many people in between. “Isn’t this just racist?” read one.
The forearm photos, according to the controversial new guidelines, had to include commenters’ user names written out by hand, as well as time stamps to make clear they were recent.
“People are complaining, but I have yet to figure out a better way to do it,” a black moderator whose user name is Nasjere told a reporter as he chipped away at a backlog of thousands of forearm photographs one recent afternoon, using various methods to root out fakers.
Brown forearms, white fury
Moderators, most of whom declined to give their real names, reported receiving significant abuse since they began enforcing the policy.
One user sent a stock photograph of two black men hanging from a noose, with the message, “Let me and my brother in we are both black.” Others compared the exclusion of white people from some conversations to Jim Crow-era laws that relegated black people to second-class status in all of civic life.
There was considerable discussion about whether a photograph could demonstrate a person’s blackness, given the wide variety of skin colors among African-Americans and the complex social meanings of race that extend beyond skin color.
And the proliferation of consumer DNA tests, which break down geographic ancestry to precise percentages, prompted one critic to query:
“My mom is 1% Ghanaian, meaning I’m .5%. Does that count?”
Others said it was the height of hypocrisy for a forum full of discussions on combating racial injustice to exclude people on the basis of race. “Ever heard of fighting fire with fire?” asked the user swiper33. Another user, Sunny1296, wrote, “Confused how it’s okay in 2019 to exclude over skin tone when we’re all the same underneath.”
Under the new rules, comments are initially open to all. But nonwhite participants are allowed to continue contentious discussions after they are closed to white users. Those threads are labeled “Country Club,” a term the moderators said they chose in reference to a place where black people in America have historically found themselves excluded, and often still do.
When participants who have been verified as black post a comment on any thread, a check mark now appears next to their username. Hispanic, Asian and other nonwhite people can also be added to a list of approved users, though they do not get a check mark.
There is one way that white people can get on the list as well: Those with a history of thoughtful participation in the subreddit can write to the moderators about what white privilege means to them.
“We wanted to find a way to allow actual black people to be heard without being drowned out,” said a black moderator whose Reddit user name is MGLLN. “We had no idea it would blow up this site.”
Welcome to the Country Club
The idea for the Country Club threads had its genesis in an April Fools’ prank that was meant to last just a few days.
Over the previous year, the moderators had banished thousands of obvious provocateurs. Of the many users they suspected of pretending to be black, they had caught a few by researching their posts elsewhere on Reddit: “As an African American male I would love me some Wendy’s,” one user who turned out to be white wrote about the fast food President Trump served to a championship college football team at the White House. “Who the hell calls themselves a ‘male?’” the moderator IceBrotha replied.
More aggravating to some of the moderators were the seemingly well-meaning white participants who appeared to think their questions about police violence — questions like “Don’t you think it would have been different if he hadn’t resisted?” — were original or illuminating. Or those who thought it was important, in discussing the need for more black doctors, to suggest that it was best to “teach your kids to look up to people regardless of skin color.”
So this spring, the moderators decided to use April Fools’ Day to make a pointed joke about their frustrations, announcing that “we are now restricting access on this sub for black folks only.”
It was the influx of photographs featuring forearms in all shades of brown that persuaded them to make the joke rules permanent.
Some black users scrawled their screen names directly on their skin. Others wrote them on paper. A handful cast aside their anonymity and sent photographs of their faces. One sent a picture of his whole family because he was light-skinned and wanted to prove he was black. Moderators worked around the clock on the first day to verify users.
And amid the ample outrage, there was also some bliss. One user, Bigg-Tech, received the black check-mark icon that signified acceptance and responded by posting a joyful dancing GIF from “Soul Train.”