Ethnic Origins On Social Media


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The international aspect of social media can lead to some interesting discussions. Jessica Faye Carter over at Technicultr recently brought up the question of whether social sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn should collect information about their user’s ethnicity and she asked me what my thoughts were.

The Big Roadblock To Ethnic Marketing In France

Now I’ve spent many years in international marketing, I live in France and have a French company.  So my first thought was that a French company would not be able to do this.

There is a law prohibiting anyone from keeping any information related to race.  This law is widely regarded as a measure to prevent discrimination, but it also severely limits any form of multicultural marketing in France.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

“It is illegal for the French state to collect data on ethnicity and race, a law with its origins in the 1789 revolution and reaffirmed in the constitution of 1958. Some organisations, such as the Representative Council of Black Associations… have argued in favour of the introduction of data collection on minority groups but this has been resisted by other organisations and ruling politicians, often on the grounds that collecting such statistics goes against France’s secular principles and harks back to Vichy-era identity documents. During the 2007 presidential election, however, Nicolas Sarkozy was polled on the issue and stated that he favoured the collection of data on ethnicity. Part of a parliamentary bill which would have permitted the collection of data for the purpose of measuring discrimination was rejected by the Conseil Constitutionnel in November 2007.”

The French Environment Around Ethnicity

When you live in a country with a law like this that’s been around for a long time and regarded by the general public as being something to be proud of, it’s easy to assume that a significant portion of the French population would not react in the same way as people from other cultures to the collection of information on ethnicity.

This is simply because they aren’t used to being asked these types of questions.  Their first response would probably be influenced by this cultural layer.

The French Cultural Environment Is More Complex

But it’s not the only factor at play here.  In parallel to this is the national pride the French have of being the country that wrote the “Droits de l’homme”, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was a precursor to other international human rights documents.

This heritage creates a very unique environment in how the general population perceives anything remotely related to ethnic information, including collecting it and sharing it.

Different Cultures React Differently

Of course many other countries are active in combating racism, but how they go about doing this largely depends on their own cultural environment.  And what about the cultures where “combating racism” isn’t really perceived in the same way as other countries?

Different cultures approach this difficult issue from a variety of different angles.  So there is a variety of different cultural environments to deal with.

American Political Correctness

This makes me think about the wave of being politically correct in North America and how this has meant that I’ve had to change the way I refer to black people several times.  I grew up in a country which was 75% black when I was born and this percentage is now higher.

When it first became “politically incorrect” to use the word “coloured” which was what was used when I was young, well OK, I changed my vocabulary.

But the debate about what was considered the right word to use continued over the years, and I had to change my vocabulary yet again.  The acceptable word to use when referring to black people has changed too many times in my life time for me to follow any more.

And this got me to think about the meaning people associate with words.

Personal Emotional Baggage

Even though I may be considered “white”, my skin quickly tans to a very respectable deep shade of brown. Yes, brown.  Not beige or tan.  Brown.  And my skin is never “white”.

After following all of the changes in what is considered the right word to refer to black people, I looked at the colour of my skin and wondered if I should get upset about being called “white” because it’s not a very accurate word to describe my skin colour.  Of course I didn’t.  It’s just a word used in communication.  It would only become an issue if I were to take on some emotional baggage and assume that “white” isn’t appropriate, or if someone added their emotional baggage to the word when they used it.

Collective Cultural Baggage

The topic of ethnicity stirs up all sorts of baggage.  In addition to the personal emotional baggage, there’s  the baggage we acquire through the cultural environment we live in.  This is why anything related to ethnicity gets complicated.

It’s very easy to lose control… because you can never control the baggage other people have.

And to complicate things, most people aren’t even aware of the baggage they are carrying around. They don’t realize that they have cultural baggage acquired through the cultural environment they live in. They just assume the world they live in is the “real world”, the one that’s “right” and the one that should exist everywhere else.

So, it takes great wisdom to limit the risk of things getting out of control due to cultural baggage.

Ethnicity In Social Media

Even if there have already been social media platforms where people share information on their ethnic origins, the online social environment is different today.  Social media platforms simply have greater international reach than before.

Facebook has over 500 million people today across the globe, even if it is not used in the same way across all of the different countries.

And as social media develops further, will everyone across the globe be present on the same social media platform with the same mindset?  It’s highly unlikely.

Should Social Sites Ask Their Users To Share Their Ethnic Origins?

As a cross-cultural marketer I would love to have the information. But on a more personal level I believe this is not easy to do on social media sites with such a wide international reach… assuming the social media sites want to continue growing their international markets.

Although I do think it’s possible to incorporate some ethnic information on certain platforms, the challenges are great when looking at this from an international perspective. You must not under-evaluate the risk of things getting out of hand or being used wrongfully at some point down the line.

Now it’s your turn…

  • Do you know of any other problems when asking for ethnic information on social media sites?
  • What is the top benefit of social media sites asking for information on ethnic origins?
  • Do you think social media sites should ask for your ethnic origins?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Cindy King
My name is Cindy King and I help businesses with cross-cultural marketing, international sales and strategic international social media networking.


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