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Twitch suspension of Hasan Piker sparks debate over what qualifies as racist language

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/16/2021 Nathan Grayson
© The Washington Post illustration; Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon; iStock

While a standard Twitch broadcast tends to contain a few more f-bombs than the average cable television show, the live-streaming platform still draws its hardest lines in expected places: No racism, xenophobia or homophobia is permitted. A series of recent suspensions, however, has raised the contentious question of what exactly qualifies as racism.

Late on the night of Dec. 13, Twitch suspended popular political streamers Hasan “HasanAbi” Piker and Ian “Vaush” Kochinski, as well as a smaller streamer who goes by the handle “Fawn,” for saying the word “cracker” in reference to White people.

Piker, a leftist political commentator and one of the most popular streamers on Twitch, was suspended first after multiple discussions of the word dating back to last week when two of his chat moderators were banned from Twitch for using it. At the time, he took issue with this. In the following days, Piker contended during multiple streams that the term is not a slur in the same way as overtly dehumanizing terms like the n-word.

“It’s something I’ve talked about so many times because it’s like White boys love f------ saying, ‘Cracker is the same as the n-word,' ” Piker said during a Saturday stream alongside fellow Twitch star Imane “Pokimane” Anys. “It’s really stupid. The etymology of the word is different. … It comes from ‘whip cracker.’ So the power is still in the hands of the White person in that situation, whereas the n-word is dehumanizing.”

“I get it,” Anys said in response.

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A 2013 article from NPR’s “Code Switch,” which explores issues of race and identity, delved into the etymology of the term after it surfaced in George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Academics and historians interviewed by the article’s author, Gene Demby, dated the term’s use back to Shakespearean times when it was applied as an “insult for an obnoxious bloviator” and was usually directed at people from Scotland or Ireland. When immigrants from those countries crossed the Atlantic to America, the term followed them. Jelani Cobb, a historian now at Columbia University and a staff writer for the New Yorker interviewed by Demby, noted it was later tied to poor White farm hands “since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip.”

“Over the course of time it came to represent a person of lower caste or criminal disposition, (in some instances, [it] was used in reference to bandits and other lawless folk),” Cobb said.

After additional discussions in the days that followed, including an onstream debate with a fan from his stream’s live chat, Twitch opted to suspend Piker from the platform for one week, preventing him from directly benefiting from a series of collaborations with other big-name streamers he had lined up.

“Yes, it is for exactly what you think it is,” Piker said on Twitter at the time, “anti-White racism …”

Piker did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Twitch. Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.

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The suspension generated a flurry of discourse throughout Twitch focusing on whether the word is a slur and Twitch’s inconsistency when it comes to applying its rules about derogatory terms. Some streamers went so far as to address the issue in their broadcasts, despite the possible repercussions. Kochinski, a fellow political commentator, was among them. During a Monday night stream, he argued it is a slur, because his definition of the word “slur” includes any derogatory term rooted in race or ethnicity. But he also said he wouldn’t stop using it, because it’s still different from slurs aimed at non-White people.

“It’s like those people who say you can’t be racist against White people,” he said during his stream. “Yeah you can. [But] you can’t be systemically racist against White people. That’s the critical difference. … It’s not reinforced by the big systemic stuff, which is of course the real hurt.”

Dana Ste. Claire, a Florida historian and anthropologist cited in NPR’s article on the term’s origins, noted that it was used by the governor of Florida in official documents and was even reappropriated by those at whom it was directed as “a badge of honor and a term of endearment.” Its contentious nature endured, however. In the 1990s, a new Florida school incorporated the term into its name due to its relevance in the region’s history and the school’s proximity to The Florida Cracker Trail.

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“African Americans protested because they thought it was racist and Whites protested because they thought it was racist,” Ste. Claire said.

For a more modern comparison, on his Twitch stream Kochinski pointed to the term “Karen” as it’s colloquially applied to typically White women who are seen as misusing or weaponizing their privilege.

“Is ‘Karen’ a slur? Yes. Accept it,” Kochinski said. “And I will use it.”

Video: Is it okay for people of all races to use the n-word or only African Americans?

Not long after, his channel received an indefinite suspension, which on Twitch is functionally a ban. Kochinski went on to share the email he received from Twitch about his suspension, which specifically referenced “hateful slurs or symbols.” Unlike Piker, however, Kochinski — who previously endured a lengthy suspension in the wake of anti-Israel comments — mostly earns his income on YouTube. As a result, he’s taking his Twitch ban in stride.

“I’m not upset,” Kochinski told The Post in a direct message. “It’s pretty funny. It helps that the vast majority of my viewership and all of my income comes from YouTube, though I will miss being able to pop into other people’s [Twitch] streams or join panel shows.”

Kochinski added that he’s used the word during streams before, albeit facetiously. As for why Twitch took action now, he believes it’s because “Hasan was daring them to.”

“Social media platforms are terrible at acknowledging context and power relations when it comes to harassment,” Kochinski said. “This is why so many trans people on Twitter get banned for calling their harassers TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists], which is categorically not a slur. Hasan’s flagrant use of the word forced them to commit to a position. They committed harder than I expected, considering my ban.”

Reached on Discord, Fawn, who did not disclose her real name, said she was suspended for simply inquiring about the word in another streamer’s Twitch chat. She believes another viewer went on to report her for this, even though she was just trying to catch up on the controversy.

“I’m from New Zealand,” Fawn said. “We don’t use that word to refer to anything but snacks here. I know what it means in America, but before yesterday I had no clue it was some kind of slur. … I don’t want to use the word, I don’t think it will ever be a part of my vocabulary. I’m just against banning people for simply asking about the discourse.”

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In the time since the suspensions, many other streamers have expressed dissatisfaction with Twitch’s inconsistent application of its rules against derogatory language.

A Twitch partner who goes by the handle “Breadwitchery” asked on Twitter how Piker could be banned for using the term while "top streamers can drop the r-slur no problem?” — referring to an offensive term used to describe people with intellectual disabilities.

Fawn concurred with this assessment: “I still can’t believe they don’t touch streamers who consistently use the r-word and other ableist language on stream,” she said. “The hypocrisy is mind-blowing.”

“It’s honestly rare for me to go live on Twitch without at least one person coming into my chat to harass me for being a trans person,” a streamer who goes by the handle “Keffals” said on Twitter, “but the hateful conduct that Twitch seems to care about more is whether people use goofy insults …”

Other streamers have supported Twitch’s crackdown on the word, if not its decision to ban specific streamers for using it. The platform’s most popular streamer, Félix “xQc” Lengyel, who is friends with Piker, came out against language that singles out any particular group.

“I don’t take offense to the word; I’m French Canadian," he said during a recent stream. "All I know is the basis of insulting based on skin color is trashy and unneeded. … It’s, like, three or four words you can’t say. Chill out.”

Race has been a prominent subject on Twitch of late. The suspensions come in the wake of the streaming platform’s months-long “hate raid” fiasco, in which groups of trolls used fake accounts and bots to overwhelm Black and otherwise marginalized streamers’ chats with slurs and hateful language. Twitch released tools and features that helped mitigate the raids after they endured for more than a month and, in some cases, exposed streamers’ personal information.

Black streamers have taken issue with how quickly and definitively Twitch acted in suspending Piker and the others relative to its response to the hate raids, which required a technical solution. (The company previously stated on Twitter it couldn’t always “share details” on solution efforts because “bad actors work in parallel to find ways around them.”) Some Black streamers have also spoken out against the implication that the word used by the suspended streamers and the n-word are functionally the same.

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“White folks have never had a true disadvantage in the history of our current world because of the color of their skin,” Omega “Critical Bard” Jones, who is Black and has dealt with significant harassment from hate raids and a Twitch promotional event gone awry, said to The Post. He added that the application of the term "is not and never will be something that can be considered racist or hateful toward White individuals, as they still benefit from their skin tone. On the contrary, being called the n-word is directly correlated with the systemic discrimination and inequity of Black people. Its very existence is steeped in pure racism. They are not and never will be the same.”

On Twitter, Piker offered a similar assessment.

“White people are oppressed, just on the basis of class — not race,” he wrote. “Whiteness is a made up concept by slavers who wanted to maintain arbitrary purity standards. This is why the entire argument is stupid, and you’re upset about the wrong thing.”


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