Has ‘Black LinkedIn' Resorted To Intentionally Misspelling ‘White' To Avoid Online Suppression?
The short answer is yes, many racial justice and antiracism advocates have long resorted to intentionally misspelling the word "white" for fear of suppression. The better question is why does this…
The short answer appears to be….Yes. When Kanika M. Sims, MD, MPH crafted her first LinkedIn post promoting her new book Diversity Is Not A Dirty Word, she took care to ensure that her words were precise and her message, clear and compelling. While most authors would edit their posts to prevent any misspellings, she made sure to include one—'whyte' instead of 'white' in reference to white women—just one trick many Black and brown professionals have employed for years to avoid potential online suppression of their posts related to workplace equity, inclusion and antiracism. A board-certified internal medicine physician and assistant professor of hospital medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, Sims is well-versed in the challenges around health equity and workplace inclusion, but navigating potential online suppression for her was a whole new ballgame. 'I typed 'whyte' instead of white due to concerns that the algorithm might see my use of the word white and limit the number of people I can reach and connect with. I've noticed other people avoiding the term white for years. I only recently started doing this after Saira Rao's profile was removed from LinkedIn for using the term 'white women,'' she explains. 'If a NYT bestselling author could have her profile deleted for using the term ‘white women,' then I knew I needed to watch my step. That was at the beginning of December. I have not used the term ‘white' since then, and I don't plan to.' While LinkedIn declined to comment on Rao's specific situation for privacy reasons, a LinkedIn spokesperson provided the following statement.
'Constructive and honest discussions about race are some of the conversations you'll see, and that we support, on LinkedIn. We do not remove conversations about these topics, provided they follow our Professional Community Policies. We are always working to improve our review process, and when we do make a mistake we work to make it right.' LinkedIn also shared the following link for more information on their commitment to safe conversations.
The sad truth is that Dr. Sims is far from alone. Alternate representations of the word white—yt, whyte, wh.te, even a white circle—often show up on the platform, particularly in posts related to racial equity, inclusion and antiracism. The suppression issue unfortunately isn't a new one. Coining the term 'Black LinkedIn,' Ashanti Maya Martin raised issues around censorship of Black voices in her 2020 The New York Times article 'Black LinkedIn is Thriving. Does LinkedIn Have a Problem With That?' The article outlines the difficult position many Black LinkedIn users face trying to be their authentic self online—boldly speaking up against racism while artfully navigating the mysterious, invisible algorithm tightrope. 'In the absence of clear communication from the company, these users are left guessing as to what the rules are—and feeling that the company is not just policing their tone but stifling their opportunity to force change in corporate America,' the 2020 article concludes. While LinkedIn and other social media platforms likely censor, suppress or shadow ban content or entire accounts for any number of reasons, many Black and brown professionals have found a particular sensitivity to the word 'white' when referencing white people, and many have resorted to simply avoiding typing those five simple letters, w-h-i-t-e, recognizing them as algorithmic napalm. Here are the experiences of just a few savvy LinkedIn users who regularly post about racial equity and justice.
'I have had my content censored (suppressed or completely deleted) many times. The posts that are affected often include ‘trigger words' such as ‘white,' ‘racism,' or ‘colonization.' In order to give the content a chance of actually being seen and engaged with, I employ workarounds,' explains Lisa Hurley, Anthem Award-Winning Activist & Speaker. 'I either avoid those words altogether, use creative spellings, or employ code words. It is exhausting. It is all a part of the additional labor that is demanded of Black and Global Majority people to merely exist, create, and communicate.'
'Typing the word ‘white' to reference white people sounds the alarm for ‘the algorithm' and all who are ready to be offended,' insists Black workforce advocate and equity educator Kimberley John-Morgan. 'Platforms like LinkedIn are built to support white comfort; only a small percentage of selected anti-racism posts are shared widely to not ‘overwhelm' those with no lived experience.'
'In my experience, typing the word ‘white' can trigger algorithmic suppression on LinkedIn, especially if it's in conjunction with other words like ‘women,' ‘supremacy,' ‘privilege' or even ‘men.' The result is that content dealing with anti-racism and DEI may not get seen, or will be seen by far fewer people,' explains Sharon Hurley Hall, Author, I'm Tired of Racism: True Stories of Existing While Black. 'Alternate spellings are a good way to circumvent that suppression. I've experimented with posting essentially the same content with and without the word ‘white' spelled correctly. The one with the misspelling or with a white circle almost always does better.'
The concern clearly isn't limited to Black and brown professionals. Dear White Women Co-Founder Misasha Suzuki Graham who is white and Japanese explains, 'On my personal LinkedIn, I've had to play around with writing ‘white' in a different way – ‘whyte' or ‘wh.te' or shortening the podcast name to "DWW" rather than spelling it all out in order to not have my views taken down from the hundreds or thousands to mere tens of views. For the record, I think this is ridiculous.'
While its obviously understandable why blatant hate speech or threats targeting any racial group would be censored, many will scratch their heads wondering why something as benign as typing the word ‘white' as part of a thoughtful post related to people or racism could trigger suppression. Those experienced in navigating this issue offer their insight.
'In the same way that many white people are triggered by being called white, the algorithms are triggered by the word as well. The design can only be a reflection of the designer,' asserts Real Talk on Racism host Lisa Hurley. 'So on the one hand, the algorithms are coded to flag certain words. On the other hand, there is a cadre of white people who actively troll and report the posts and accounts of activists in order to mute our voices, control the narrative, and maintain their self-image of being ‘one of the good ones.' Having the offending posts removed is one way of weaponizing the very privilege that they deny having.'
'Social media sites, in theory at least, want to avoid racial abuse on their platforms, and have coded their algorithms to pick up ‘questionable' language, but what's considered ‘questionable' is racially biased,' insists Hurley-Hall. 'Unfortunately, this tends to be weaponized against Black and Global Majority people speaking about racism. It's always been interesting to me that Black and white people could share the same link or post about the same topic, and it's often the Black women that get their content removed or restricted or get banned from the platform altogether.'
Noticing the volume of complaints and anecdotes referencing this type of suppression, in late 2021 Hurley-Hall started documenting examples in a LinkedIn article for two primary reasons: to let others know they weren't alone and to elevate the issue to the platform for appropriate resolution. 'It succeeded on the first goal, but not the second,' Hurley-Hall reports. 'Apart from my own reports, I know others have taken up the baton and tried to get the people in charge of LinkedIn to take action. However, the suppression continues for many creators.'
Arguably more art than science, content moderation certainly isn't easy. It requires sophistication, common sense, careful consideration, and in this case, a degree of racial literacy and humility to help decipher context. With racialized terms in particular, platforms are faced with distinguishing inappropriate hate speech from valuable, instructive race-based commentary that might fuel controversy or even discomfort (but may in fact be just what is needed to further important conversations and potentially shift perspectives).
Clearly, effective content moderation requires a scalpel, not a hammer and context and source both matter. For those who may be prone to automatically label commentary referencing white or Black people as inherently problematic, let's remember that race acknowledgement is not the same as race discrimination. To underscore this distinction, perhaps it's instructive to reflect on late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens' commentary concerning the debate over race-conscious admissions policies. He explained, 'There is no moral or constitutional equivalence between a policy that is designed to perpetuate a caste system and one that seeks to eradicate racial subordination.'
As for Dr. Sims, as she pivots into a new chapter in her career focused around creating inclusive, equitable work environments, she does so somewhat gingerly—keenly aware of the invisible landmines constraining her voice and keeping her 'in line.' For her, the intentional misspelling game on LinkedIn is just one more acknowledgement that too often adages like 'show up as your authentic self' are at best aspirational.
'I no longer tag #WhiteWomen even though I think white women would benefit from my message. I have also become hyper-aware that LinkedIn isn't a platform where I can be my most authentic self,' Sims admits. 'In this season of my career, I can't afford to have my voice censored, so I've capitulated. Historically, Black people have had to learn to work within systems of oppression as a mechanism for survival and advancement. Although disappointing, it is not surprising that we are forced to adopt those same guerilla tactics on social media. Black people are masters of adapting to hostile environments. Social media is no different.'