The Painful Reality of Being a Black Woman on the Internet
From racist Twitter trolls to misogynist memes, using social media as a woman of colour sucks.
About a month ago, comedic rock star Leslie Jones left Twitter after being bombarded with incredibly racist, and misogynistic tweets from users offended by her role in the new Ghostbusters reboot. Her mentions were a minefield of racist memes and statements thrown her way by trolling egg shaped profiles. She was likened to various gorillas who have starred in Hollywood movies, including Harambe (the gorilla that was shot in a Cincinnati zoo). She was called a n***a, a slave, an uncle Tom, a big-lipped coon, sent pictures of penises and all other levels of racist depravity. It's fucked and gives a whole new definition to cyber bullying.
Watching Jones break down, I thought of my own experiences on Twitter and Facebook and all the times I've held myself back or faced a barrage of hate from strangers looking to police my voice. For black women to survive on social media we have to follow a set of rules that help keep the inevitable harassment to a minimum. Everything that's good about digital communication in 2016 ends up being used against us. This list below gives you a sense of the shit we are expected to do, things most people take for granted, and some suggestions on how to avoid being an online bystander when someone's being attacked.
Avoid Having Any Opinions
If you're a woman on social media who addresses issues of inequality with a lens that also includes anti-black racism, you can rest assured that someone will accuse YOU of being a racist for talking about your oppression—and they'll probably engage with you by being racist. I spoke to a well-known social commentator with over 100,000 Twitter followers about the daily bullshit she experiences because of her activism. Although her mass following has made it easier to reach a large audience, it's also left her vulnerable to constant online harassment. Speaking to me under condition of anonymity to avoid further abuse, she said that on any given day she's subjected to messages ranging from "I would like to kill this bitch," to rape threats.
"I usually block 10-30 people everyday depending on what content I have put out and what has gone viral," she said. Her haters would much rather she be quiet and scrolling through her feed I lost track of the number of times she was told to shut up.
I see so many white men spewing the most irrelevant garbage on the internet without facing any reprisal. Before posting anything online, I always weigh the odds to decide if my insight is worth the harassment. Should I comment on a misguided piece written by a well known male editor, or should I wait and hopefully retweet something shared by another white male, with similar thoughts to mine. That way, I can somewhat reduce whatever backlash I get. I censor myself so I can survive online.
TIP: If you see a black woman being bombarded with racist messages on social media, be a pal and collect the idiots. Report them, tweet them facts on racism. Just do something besides giving a cursory glance, or worse chuckling at the "drama."
Never Block Anyone
Women of colour on social media are expected to allow harassers constant access our accounts. If we don't, we're accused of being able to dish it, but too weak to take it. Let me just say that talking about racism isn't "dishing" anything. A while back I wrote a piece on racism in policing. My critics (mostly white men) called me a cunt and some told me to shut my trap and write about things I actually know about. (Obviously as a black woman I know nothing about racism.) A really bored troll took a screenshot of my Twitter picture and posted it under all the comments regarding my piece—I assume so readers would know what I looked like. Another said I was hurting their race (white); the majority of the trolls were just plain sexist. As my article received more traction so did their anger. After choosing to block their baseless commentary from my feed, I was struck by just how much of a claim they had laid on my time and space, as they expected me to engage with them constantly. Apparently taking abuse is the rent I'm supposed to pay for being visible on the internet.
TIP: Just because my feed is public doesn't mean it's your home. If you have every right to throw racist insults at me, I have every right to block you.
Never Get Angry
To avoid excessive public scrutiny in these social trenches, black women are required to be really sweet natured. We're expected to have infinite patience as we calmly explain why inequality pisses us off. I don't understand how I am expected to be joyful when I am living in a time where a raging racist is a potential presidential candidate. Rather than being seen as a valid reaction to trauma and fear, my rage online is used to paint me as a petulant child. The angry black woman trope quickly comes to the forefront the minute I react with anger and frustration at having to constantly wade through the mansplaining, the "scratch your head statements," and the never ending supply of "go back to Africa." To answer that statement, I would gladly go back to Africa but y'all should probably pay for my fare because your ancestors were my ride here. I am not exactly a long distance swimmer.
TIP: Don't ever, ever tell a black woman to calm down when she is talking about the ways anti-black racism takes away her agency and humanity. Imagine you were drowning and someone told you to calm down, while they were standing on the shore. Stupid right?
Do Not Mention Intersectionality
As we live in this time of mainstream feminism, black women are expected to steer clear of including race in the discussion. That is seen as tearing down feminism and not allowing it to be the cloak that "equally" fights for all women. Introducing intersections of race, class, literacy, ableism, and culture into a conversation that has always been dominated by whiteness is a surefire way of guaranteeing that a disgruntled white feminist will accuse me of letting the men win. It becomes a case of Taylor Swift vs. Nicki Minaj minus the awards. The resounding echo being that black women are just being Debbie Downers when all women are clearly winning. My commenting on the whiteness of Girls and Sex and the City; the veiled racism of comedy duo Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and the dishonesty of Hillary Clinton does not equate to me hating women. It's me calling out the ways black women are forgotten when these women choose to discuss female autonomy, equal pay, and political power. That should not be seen as taking away from feminism, but instead making it more inclusive. If that bothers you, then I'm sorry to say but you need to rethink the range of your feminism.
TIP: Feminism means nothing without intersectionality. If it's not intersectional it's not Feminism. So don't fight the complexity. Embrace it.
My dad hates social media and thinks it's a waste of space, constantly telling me that my time would be better spent reading a book. I do both, but now more than ever, books are becoming my escape when the harassment becomes too much. I always return to the social media realm though because people are assholes and more likely to show it online than at the library. Social media gives me the ammunition I need to put the racist bigots on blast, and although this doesn't make the racism easier, it does make it bearable.
As I do this I kindly ask the trolls to stop interrupting my grinding.
It's that simple.
Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.