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Chloe Lew: Yik Yak brings bigotry to forefront, creates impetus for change

By Chloe Lew

April 2, 2015 1:40 a.m.

Ever since I downloaded Yik Yak, I have been searching for a reason to delete it.

In the last few months, “riding the Yak” has become routine for me – partly in search of a laugh, but mostly in search of the one racist, sexist, bigoted or outright hateful post that would be my breaking point.

I’m still searching. And it’s not because Yik Yak does not harbor some truly repulsive comments, but because few of these yaks contain language I have not already heard in real life on our campus.

The application itself is not to blame for the discriminatory language students use on it. Yik Yak is not the enemy, but it can be a tool. Student groups across our own campus can proactively build community dialogues around specific yaks, publicizing the prejudice rampant on the app and on this campus rather than burying it.

Yik Yak, a social media app that lets people post brief, anonymous “yaks” for anyone within a 1.5-mile radius to interact with, has racked up so much notoriety for hate speech among college campuses in the last year and a half that some colleges are calling to ban the app entirely.

The types of prejudices seen in Yik Yak posts are widespread, from “Why do girls think it’s OK to be fat?” to “Do Asians ever look like they know what’s going on?” and “In order to pull (the man bun look) off, the guy has to be super masculine already. Otherwise it looks gay.” The hateful and prejudiced posts can act as concrete evidence of the exact diversity problem so many students at UCLA still deny.

It is the responsibility of student interest groups that focus on social change to address these posts. Conversations around discriminatory posts can be built into campaigns as broad as the ongoing mental health campaign, “All of Us,” or as narrow as last month’s three-day long movement Spread the Word to End the Word. These campaigns could examine the context in which students use stigmatized words such as “retarded” or make threats of gender violence on the app. Meanwhile, other groups such as the Student Wellness Commission’s Body Image committee, Bruin Feminists, or ethnic and cultural groups can create workshops or conversations around the yaks that engage in body-shaming, misogyny and racism respectively.

Our campus climate problem exists, and when so much student interaction takes place on social media, student groups committed to creating inclusive spaces cannot ignore the activity on apps like Yik Yak that perpetuate bigotry and discrimination.

Reynol Junco, an associate professor of education and human computer interaction at Iowa State University who researches how technology affects college students, said that instances of prejudiced speech on apps like Yik Yak can help guide the campus conversation around issues of discrimination and campus climate.

“You can take the content on Yik Yak and guide conversations that way,” said Junco. “You can see what you need to address on your campus. You can also see what you can support on your campus.”

Junco moderated a discussion at a conference held by NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education last week, where so many student affairs professionals used Yik Yak to voice sexual or rude opinions about the presenters that the organization had to release a statement in defense of its values. Although the conference had already been tainted, it rightfully ended in an additional session for participants to discuss the app’s presence in the conference. The discussion even brought forward specific posts from the conference’s Yik Yak feed.

Unsatisfactory campus climate surveys and diversity issues have long plagued UCLA, and we cannot afford to wait until our name is dragged through the mud by a Yik Yak scandal to address the widely used app.

Here, Yik Yak’s dangerous anonymity factor finally earns a saving grace. It provides us with usable, visual proof that our peers often disguise hateful speech as punchlines and presents an opportunity to educate one another on more overlooked or understated forms of hate speech, without necessarily pointing fingers.

Using faceless posts keeps us from blaming specific speakers as if instances of discriminatory language are isolated. Rather, the anonymity reminds us that these posts could be attributed to any student on campus, and lets campaigns and dialogues focus on deconstructing the prejudiced language itself, without the distraction of who said it.

The content on the app, which includes students’ perspectives of faculty and administrators, can be tackled on an administrative level as well – namely in the office of our newly named diversity vice chancellor Jerry Kang. Yik Yak offers a telling and arguably unfiltered peek into our bleak campus climate, and that is exactly why it is useful.

In my quest for a reason to delete Yik Yak from my phone, I think I may have found one to keep it: We need to see a problem to know it exists, and we need to interact with it to fix it.

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Chloe Lew
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