Holdgruen: Viral experiment videos hinder progress of real social change

Creating trendy videos for entertainment websites is the wrong way to uncover and bring attention to institutional discrimination. Social experiment videos become viral at the expense of those they’re trying to support.

The Huffington Post recently covered a video that follows two straight, white men as they hold hands while walking down the street in Luton, a town in England. The goal of the video is to show how gay couples experience harassment and homophobia on a daily basis.

Another video created by BuzzFeed shows four women wearing hijabs in public in order to expose the Islamophobia and sexism that Muslim women endure. The video begins with a Muslim woman explaining the symbolism of the hijab and how to wear one; the rest of the video consists of the non-Muslim women’s reflections on the experiment.

Majority groups should not try to prove the experiences of oppressed minorities. One does not need to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their experiences; they have to listen to and believe minorities when they describe their oppression.

Social change regresses if the majority insists on going “undercover” to experience oppression––the women can simply take off the hijab after the experiment is over and never experience Islamophobia ever again. The Muslim woman sharing her wisdom in the beginning of the video will still be oppressed after filming is over.

To borrow an example, homophobia and intolerance are dangerous and drive gay teens to suicide; this alone should be enough “proof” that gay people are oppressed.

Sharing the experience with heterosexual men and non-Muslim women may increase understanding of and sympathy for the oppressed groups, but it also just increases website traffic. If the websites actually cared about social justice, they would create videos with real minorities sharing their experiences in a society that is built against them. The background planning and preparation to create oppressive experiences for participants in the videos is not as genuine as real-life experiences off-camera.

Despite this, the videos are definitely well-intentioned. Both experiments conclude with the participants’ epiphanies of realizing discrimination and various “-isms” exist. It can be a positive tool for an audience completely ignorant of social justice issues––especially children––and the videos do not mock minorities or portray experiences inappropriately.

This brand of social justice, however, is clearly aimed toward a straight, cisgender and white audience. It portrays oppression as unknown and distant even though it is a constant, daily occurrence. The audience is tricked into believing they are learning about an important social issue when seeing discrimination in action.

The videos only scratch the surface of these issues. Homophobia and Islamophobia run within economic, health and governmental institutions. There are deeper problems that a contributor at BuzzFeed cannot experience through a viral video. Highlighting the experiences of individual privileged people does not help understanding true oppression on a larger scale.