Chattanooga, Tennessee, also called the Scenic City, is known for a number of things, from its beautiful surroundings to its 10-mile riverwalk down to the Tennessee Aquarium and its (apparently) delicious southern food. Yet, Chattanooga has recently gained attention for something very different; since 2015, it has also infamous for the killings of several people after known Muslim, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, went on a killing spree at two US military facilities. While Chattanooga is one of Tennessee’s fastest-growing cities, according to the FBI, it also ranks number nine among all US cities for highest rate of hate crimes. But the city has a plan; by partnering up with Hatebase, the world’s largest database for hate speech terms, it intends to solve its hate crime problem.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, hate crimes within the state increased 10.5 per cent from 2016 to 2017. In 2017, the agency received 199 statewide reports involving 315 victims, an increase from the 180 reports in 2016. Of those reports, 56.8 per cent included racial, ethnicity and ancestral bias. Tensions between Americans, primarily white Americans and Muslims, have remained high since the 11 September terrorist attack in New York City and Washington D.C. When you couple that with the 2015 shooting and the election of an openly racist and sexist bigot for president in 2016—an increase was bound to happen.
The Muslim population in Chattanooga constitutes a small, tight-knit community. Members of this community have since tried to right a wrong that isn’t theirs to right, while continuing to fall victim to hateful slurs and attacks. Coincidentally, statistics show that counties that held a 2016 Trump rally saw a 226 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to those that did not. Chattanooga is, of course, one of these cities. So how are cities like Chattanooga able to address such an imminent problem? And what exactly are they hoping to accomplish?
In November 2019, the city launched an initiative that encourages people to anonymously report hate speech through an online forum. Whether it’s something you see, hear or experience directly or indirectly, the Chattanooga government, in partnership with Hatebase, a Toronto-based company that serves as the world’s largest repository for hate speech across 200 countries, created a simple form that allows you to indicate the term used, note whether it was directed towards you or somebody else, define the term and give the language in which the term was spoken.
Because of its high ranking status, Chattanooga is of the first US cities to record hate speech using this method. “We’re hoping to collect this data over the next several years to develop a baseline and better understand hate speech and reduce the likelihood that it graduates from speech to violence in our community,” explained Kerry Hayes, deputy chief of staff to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke in Chattanooga’s local newspaper.
Every night, the city pulls together what has been collected and adds it to a data-set used to monitor hate speech within these marginalised communities. The overall goal is to identify correlations between the racial slurs being used and the actual hate crimes being committed. The partnership between these two entities also hopes to correct the city’s persistent problem of poor and inconsistent reporting to local law enforcement agencies, although the primary goal is to stop massive acts of violence before they happen.
If this works for the city, this could mean that soon enough we will be able to, potentially, use hate speech as a predictor for regional violence. And for those of you who remain suspicious of Hatebase and its method’s accuracy, it has already successfully been used as an early warning system for armed ethnic conflicts in Kenya, Uganda, Burma and Iraq. So what if in 2020—or maybe in the coming decade—we finally solved hate crimes?
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”