Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

To unfriend or not unfriend: What to do with racist Facebook 'friends'

Facebook posts that are filled with racist, anti-refugee rhetoric can be overwhelming, especially when you're married to a Syrian-Canadian, writes Caroline Hillier.

Anti-refugee sentiments are tough to ignore when you’re married to a Syrian-Canadian

Caroline Hillier's husband, Eyad Sakkar, is a Syrian-Canadian. (Caroline Hillier )

There was a time when random game requests and filtered photos of food were the worst things clogging up my Facebook news feed.

These days, it's something much worse: racism.

Ever since the heart-breaking terrorist attack in Paris, a wave of intolerance has seeped into my Facebook feed.

A man kneels and weeps at the site of a makeshift memorial for the Paris attacks at the Place de la République. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)

It's repulsive and it comes in many forms: Islamophobic rants, petitions and memes about anti-immigration. Not to mention so-called news agencies broadcasting frustratingly inaccurate facts and figures that are then shared hundreds of times.

Don't have those kind of "friends?" You're lucky. I've got enough to go around.

Here's just one example of a post I've come across recently:

"Many Canadian people will become a minority just like the UK now most common name in their country is Mohammed... Unreal."

Here's another:

"I guess when the refugees come here, fill up our jobs, our schools, our house, our roads ... Make no wonder half our doctors are foreign f--ks. It's 'cause they can afford to go because the Canadian government will pay for it."

Who are they?

To be fair, only a handful of my 814 Facebook friends have chosen to advertise their intolerance in a status update. 

Maybe I'm just too liberal with my friends list. Do you post cute cat memes and music videos? If so, you've made the cut. 

If you don't want to see posts from certain 'friends,' you can always use Facebook's unfriend feature and delete them from your list. (Caroline Hillier )

What's most frightening is that I know the people behind the hate-filled posts — not always well, but I know them. 

When I scroll through my news feed and find a particularly horrifying rant, it isn't written by some faceless racist jerk — the kind you come across when skimming through the comment section of, well, anything.

The posts are written and shared by the guy I used to sit next to in homeroom, an old university roommate or the girl I called my best friend back in junior high. 

Here's another example:

"To let 25,000 unknown refugees in, you are putting millions of Canadians in danger. As a loyal Facebooker, I urge you to like and share this post to put a STOP to this new government insanity."

My tall, dark and handsome Syrian husband

From our engagement announcement, to wedding photos to our many — and I mean many — vacation selfies, my Facebook friends have virtually seen it all.

A vacation selfie from a recent trip to Turkey. (Caroline Hillier )

They've liked, congratulated and commented on dozens of photos of me and my husband. My Syrian-Canadian husband.

For those posting anti-immigration status updates, do they realize the face smiling back at them is the face of someone who was born in Syria?

If it wasn't for a few spontaneous decisions made by my husband when he was younger, his life could have been very different. He could easily be one of the millions of Syrians displaced from their homes and living in refugee camps. Or worse, he could have been killed. 

Eyad Sakkar, a Syrian-Canada, poses in front of St. John's Harbour. (Caroline Hillier )

When he left Syria over a decade ago, most of his family stayed behind. Back then, his country was a beautiful place, rich in heritage and full of lively markets.

Today it stands in ruins, ravaged by the war.

However, my husband did leave. He's now a successful real estate agent and optician who volunteers as a soccer coach, regularly gives blood and donates 2.5 per cent of his annual earnings to charity. He even has a generous habit of dropping spare change in expired downtown parking meters.

Sure I'm biased, but I'd say that makes him a contributing member of society.

Eyad Sakkar holds dual citizenship and has both a Canadian and Syrian passport. (Caroline Hillier )

Some of my husband's relatives have applied for refugee status. Their claims sit in a pile along with thousands of others looking to leave the war behind and start a new life in a safe country.

Those relatives are generous people who have lost their homes, businesses and family members to a war that has ripped their peaceful lives apart.

They are trying to get away from the very same terrorists who attack our freedoms.

'I'm not racist, but ... '

I understand that without a personal connection it can be hard to sympathize with refugees living a world away. 

I also understand that posting an offensive, ignorant or hurtful comment doesn't necessarily make you a bad person.

We're all entitled to our opinion — that's what makes this country so great. But I can't support fear-mongering and outright xenophobia (the irrational fear of people from other countries).

Eyad Sakkar left Syria in 2002 and now holds a Canadian passport. (Graham Kennedy )

And here's a tip: If you ever feel compelled to start a post with 'I'm not racist, but …,' please reconsider. From my experience, a racist comment typically follows.

Don't delete, educate

So, you scroll down your feed and find out your friend endorses the genocide of the entire Muslim population and you think, "That's it, I'm deleting this moron. That'll show 'em!"

What does that really achieve? Sometimes (but certainly not always) I think it's worth calling your "friends" out on their biases.

I wouldn't recommend leaving a comment and publicly shaming someone, but private messages usually work.

After I've sent a private note to Facebook friends, they've removed the post and thanked me for educating them on a subject they knew little about.

Confrontation not your thing? Facebook has a handy report post feature that lets you flag particularly offensive comments.

In extreme cases, a seemingly innocent meme can have dangerous connotations.

The recent spike in hate crimes we've been seeing across Canada is what's most upsetting, and a reason not to shy away from discussions around intolerance.

The vicious and violent acts of hatred have people like my husband wishing to hide their Syrian roots. 

Newfoundlanders — certainly not the only ones sharing anti-immigration posts — are famous for being friendly. Maybe it's time for us to step up and prove it on social media.

After all, no matter what your political or religious views are, we're all just one human race.

And sometimes, as I've learned, you have to know when to let go and just walk away. Which is why on Facebook — like in life — you always have the option to unfriend.


Caroline Hillier is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show.


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