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Prize-Winning Novelist's Facebook ‘Joke About White Guys’ Is Gone—and Back—in Less Than 24 Hours

Jamaican novelist Marlon James at the Calabash Literary Festival in 2007. Photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Jamaican novelist Marlon James at the Calabash Literary Festival in 2007. Photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

The raw, pull-no-punches prose of Marlon James‘ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” might be too rich for some, though not for the committee of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, which named the Jamaican novelist as laureate last year. The raw, pull-no-punches prose of Marlon James’ Facebook posts, however, appear be too much for Facebook.

The social network today removed an item James posted on February 24, on the grounds that it violated the social network's notoriously tetchy and selective Community Standards. The offending text, a comment on a Salon article about the police and media's “coddling” of the white, male perpetrator of February 20's Kalamazoo murder spree, went as follows:

This, all of this. White guys, I'll need you to reassure me that whenever I see any of your kind by himself in a public place (particularly a school) I shouldn't scream shooter. Yes, I need you as a group to constantly reassure us that the average caucasian isn't out to kill us. I mean, you expect every single Muslim to do it. Seems only fair.

This post by Marlon James was removed by Facebook on February 25 on the grounds that it violated community standards. The post was reinstated the same day.

This post by Marlon James was removed by Facebook on February 25 on the grounds that it violated community standards. The post was reinstated the same day.

A little before noon US Eastern time, James reported on Facebook that the post had been removed:

So Facebook just removed my post because it didn't “follow Facebook Community Standards.” Mind you, people post to facebook all the time expecting Muslims to reassure them that they are not terrorists, but somehow me expecting an entire racial/ethnic group to assure me that they are not spree killers is racist. America, you crazy.

He followed up soon after with an item noting the selective nature of Facebook's takedowns:

So women report posts depicting shocking violence to women and those posts stay. People of colour report explicit racism from hate groups and those stay. Make a joke about white guys and it's gone in less than 24 hours. What are you trying to tell us, Facebook?

A Facebook post takedown is usually the result of another user's reporting it as having violated Facebook's “Community Standards“, a code of conduct created by the company. As Global Voices Advocacy director Ellery Biddle has noted, however, the term “community standards” “gives the impression that we all made them up together, or that they somehow naturally evolved from some shared agreement on what is right and good.”

While Facebook's Community Standards prohibit “direct threats” and “hate speech”, they do permit users to “…challenge ideas, institutions and practices.” Marlon James’ post seems—to me, at least—to fall into that category, though one might argue that James's table-turning use of the term “your kind” to refer to white guys is a seriously wicked piece of wordsmithery.

“Marlon James’ post seems—to me, at least—to fall into that category, though one might argue that James's table-turning use of the term “your kind” to refer to white guys is a seriously wicked piece of wordsmithery.”

The fact that an abuse report on a post like James’ could be taken seriously, however, points to a terribly broken system. A story released today about incidents at a Facebook building where “black lives matter” slogans have been repeatedly crossed out and replaced with “all lives matter”, also indicates that at least one person on the Facebook campus isn't happy with this latest assertion of black civil rights.

James is by no means the first victim of Facebook's highly arbitrary Community Standards regime, of course, and the harm he's suffered pales in comparison with that inflicted on others like Indian activist Preetha G.

As a well-known writer and a bit of a Facebook celebrity—James has 7,990 followers—it could also be argued that an incident like this provides him with further opportunity to showcase his way with words and to exercise his rapier wit. In recent times James has also had Facebook posts go viral, as did his screed about the service he received at Indian airports on his way to the Jaipur Literary Festival in January.

A little after 4pm US Eastern time James posted on Facebook page that he received a message from Facebook saying that “…the policy team determined that this content was not in violation of community standards. The content has been restored, and I apologize for the error. I have also shielded your account so any further reports will require a secondary review” (emphasis added).

I'm thrilled, of course, that James got his post reinstated. But if a “primary review” was all it took for a largely innocuous item by a popular Facebook user to be removed, then heaven help us common plebs with our “unshielded” accounts.

  • emmalewis

    To me, Marlon is no longer a Jamaican writer in his outlook. Almost all his Facebook commentary is on U.S. social issues. He has not even commented on the general elections back home. He seems more and more American, every day.

    • georgiap

      Well, at least one US city has claimed him as their own – http://www.startribune.com/it-s-marlon-james-day-in-minnesota/338022171/!

      True that his (public) preoccupations have to do, for the most part, with US current affairs. Given how Caribbean societies work, however, I think it must be quite difficult for a Caribbean person living outside of the region, and outside of a diaspora community, to feel like they’re commenting meaninfully on goings-on in their home country, as the local intel and nuance that you can only get by living in the place counts for so much.

      Marlon is also happens to be living in the US at a moment where he, by virtue of his various identities, is ideally positioned to be an expert commentator. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he and his career evolve over the next several years.

      • emmalewis

        Yes, true, and I can understand that it would be difficult. But today was Election Day in Jamaica and there he is talking about American issues. I know Marlon (since he used to write for the Jamaica Observer) and he will probably remain in the U.S. (almost certainly) although we will continue to regard him as our “celebrity.” I believe he is shedding his “Jamaican-ness” although it is still a useful thing to write about. It is sad and I have seen it happen to other Caribbean writers. But it is what it is – as they say!

  • rmack

    Facebook is still doing something fishy. I was going to post this article to my Facebook page and take a look at how they blocked the usual auto-generation of headline, photo, and snippet.

    • rmack

      Here’s an example of what appears when I try to post any other random GV article on FB. The block on James’ post is not completely off – at least when it comes to discussion of it.

      • rmack

        UPDATE: According to GV’s technical guru Jeremy Clarke, it turns out the reason had to do with some technical problem with Facebook scraping, which for whatever reason was an issue with the James post but not another couple random posts I experimented with.

  • disqus_KA9qYlDVdI

    Great article Georgia! I enjoyed it very much. (And so surprised I actually knew the writer when I scrolled down to comment!) Now I’m going to go follow Mr. James.

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