I come to praise Twitter, not to bury it.
Anyone who follows me there will not be surprised by that sentence. I am an inveterate, near-constant Twitterer who uses the platform to talk about my cats, post selfies, and holler about, and at, people and things that piss me off, righteously or otherwise. Twitter is the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before I go to sleep.
And so I have watched—and, of course, tweeted—as a very particular, ongoing, and growing conversation about social justice movements and Twitter has developed over the past few years, one that situates Twitter as a dubiously useful, even “toxic” space that is good for almost nothing besides reactionary posturing and armchair activism. Twitter has been criticized as a place where well-meaning people are caught with their pants down, subjected to unfair and cruel attacks from angry users interested only in bad-faith teardowns. From both the right and the left, Twitter has been derided as a haven for self-aggrandizing bullies interested not in enacting change, but in raising their own profiles. If Twitter finds praise, it finds it grudgingly, positioned as a kind of supplemental tool that is vastly inferior to doing “real” work.
I find one common thread that connects many of Twitter’s critics: They are, in their respective spheres, in a position to be threatened by the amplification of voices and causes that upset or counter the status quo.
A number of folks have produced in-depth work on this; in particular, this essay—please click through and take time with the entire piece—from @PrisonCulture and Andrea Smith addresses the diminishing “power and control of white feminist gatekeepers” and their tendency to dismiss vocal women of color on Twitter as hysterical bullies:
As the power and control of white feminist gatekeepers diminish, they have rushed to individualize women of color’s critiques. The trope of the “bad feminist” has been deployed as a disciplinary mechanism for re-establishing and maintaining power and control. Rather than substantively engage Black feminist critiques, for example, gatekeepers demonize the bad Black feminist who is not nice to white women. The analysis of “twitter” wars then quickly devolves into a battle among individual personalities. [Feminism actually needs less focus on individuals and more on the collective struggle to uproot oppression.] Ideological differences are painted as hysterical grievance.
I believe that Twitter, because of both its popularity with marginalized peoples—a threat to establishment thinking—and relative novelty as a medium, is dually damned.
Hashtag Activism and Moving the Mountain
Let us first consider the spectre of “hashtag activism.” In particular, I want to remember #MooreAndMe, the 2010 Twitter campaign launched by Sady Doyle, who rallied feminists to hold progressive posterboy filmmaker Michael Moore accountable for his support of Julian Assange, and subsequent rape apologism. It was hailed as a remarkable moment in the history of holding liberals—white, male liberals in particular—accountable for the ways in which they perpetuate systemic oppression (in this case, rape culture) when it doesn’t suit them not to.
In its aftermath, Doyle herself was both heartened by the fact that Moore eventually apologized to her directly and skeptical about the campaign’s macro-level success, writing:
We fought, tirelessly, at great risk and expense, to make a mountain move. The mountain moved, like, three inches to the left. If you weren’t looking closely, you wouldn’t notice that it had moved at all. You definitely wouldn’t think to thank or acknowledge the incredibly hard work of the people who moved it. But we moved a mountain. We did the impossible. We went from just a random bunch of frustrated feminists, a random bunch of people on Twitter, to a force capable of changing the rape apologism in the narrative of one of the world’s biggest news stories.
Four years later, progressive and liberal tendencies, especially among liberal men, toward rape apologism continue apace—the widespread support for Woody Allen in the wake of Dylan Farrow’s New York Times letter being just one notable and recent example. I don’t think that this means “hashtag activism” is an exercise in futility, but rather a testament to the scale of the problem of rape culture. And when a problem is as big as rape culture, and as ingrained into the fabric of society, I believe we need something like Twitter—something public, something highly visible, something accessible to a wide swath of people—to stand up to media gatekeepers like Moore and his cable news defenders.
In contrast, consider #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, the hashtag started in 2013 by Mikki Kendall, who grew frustrated with high-profile white feminists who had failed, over the years, to denounce Hugo Schwyzer, a white male professor and writer dedicated to, as he claimed on his personal website, “shattering gender myths.”
In fact, some well-established white feminists—feminists with book deals, with respected and widely read blogs—encouraged Schwyzer, who had frequently enjoyed bylines on a number of popular feminist-leaning sites, including Jezebel, while at the same time he was “trashing” feminists of color and sabotaging their attempts to be published themselves.
Kendall’s hashtag specifically called out the ways in which white feminism—what Kendall has called “corporate feminism”—becomes deeply invested in ideas of unity and solidarity when its white privilege is called out, when race trumps gender, when white supremacy reigns, well, supreme.
Importantly, the Schwyzer ordeal was hardly a unique moment; feminists of color, womanists, Latin@ feminists,
indigenous and Native feminists, and gender equality activists have long had cause to critique and question an appropriative white feminism that tells them race is on the agenda … later.
As Tina Vasquez noted at Bitch, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was not simply about a one-off incident involving a predatory, self-aggrandizing man and his white feminist supporters, but about calling attention to—naming and identifying—something simultaneously real and so very hard to pin down.
The #MooreAndMe hashtag happened before Twitter became “toxic,” and I think it’s not insignificant that it was begun by a white feminist for whom the implications and consequences of openly discussing rape online—or anywhere else—are simply, and unavoidably, different than if she had been a woman of color. This, I think, for the simple reason that white privilege is real, and that women of color, particularly Black American women, are situated as being always available, as being “unrapeable.” What Doyle went through during and in the aftermath of #MooreAndMe—she was subjected to relentless harassment, including rape threats and worse—should not be dismissed; at the same time, we must acknowledge the fact that who is allowed to talk about and criticize rape culture—who is allowed to even begin that conversation with credibility—is necessarily racialized in a culture of white supremacy.
I think it is not an accident or coincidence that Twitter was officially declared “toxic” after #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, after a watershed moment in hashtag activism that demanded feminist gatekeepers—a group that I think it could be said I belong to, by virtue of my career as a feminist activist journalist—to take a hard look in the mirror.
This is not to say that other hashtags—#Komen and #StandWithPP in particular come to mind—have not been criticized as being divisive to the feminist movement, but (white) feminist opposition to Twitter has, I think, taken a particularly vicious turn in the wake of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and with the growing, and explicitly radical and anti-racist, online activism work from Suey Park and others. And we need to sit with that and be honest with ourselves, both about the role that white supremacy plays in social justice spheres and the incredible power of Twitter to force a conversation (or, as necessary, a fight).
New Media: An Age-Old Fear
There is plenty of room for thoughtful engagement on the subject of Twitter and hashtag activism that lies between condemnation and glorification. Brittney Cooper, writing at Salon on #BringBackOurGirls, does just this, examining why and where Westerners become interested in “our” kidnapped Nigerian girls, and the militaristic implications of “bringing them back.” I think it’s safe to say that when the First Lady of the United States is taking meme-style photographs of herself holding a hashtag sign, we ought to take activism on social media seriously.
Activist hashtags, while they may be fleeting, and they may require a bare minimum of engagement from many, also act as memory markers, identifiers and names for mercurial moments and movements that shape our present and our future, but which might otherwise be obscured by the passage of time, as so often happens to our work when it happens online. This is not a failure of online activism itself, but a failure of humans to find good ways to archive it.
The hashtag—the use of which is actually quantifiable, something that can be teased out and isolated among a world-wide web of intersecting forms of social media and online publishing, because Twitter almost by necessity links out and away from itself—is an incredible tool with which we can build a new history that lives outside the canon.
At least for now. I expect that in the years to come, Twitter could either burn out entirely or become the claimed—the colonized—space of the mainstream thought leaders who today decry it. This is a nigh-inevitable progression, one we have seen manifest time and time again.
Indeed, the fearful frothing over Twitter from mainstream media-makers and institutional gatekeepers is so boring and predictable as to be laughable. People with privilege have been wadding their underclothes over the democratizing power of new forms of media for literally thousands of years.
In the most basic J-school 101 example: Consider the third of the ten commandments, wherein God tells his people, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
God—a being who possesses what I have to imagine is an unfathomable amount of privilege—doesn’t just want his people to not worship other gods or their likenesses, but he actually commands them not to create likenesses of anything at all, ever. Why? Because in doing so, his people create for themselves something to talk and think about that isn’t God, and isn’t God-approved. Creating likenesses opens up a whole figurative can of graven worms; it is a revolutionary act that denies God the ability to set—to limit—the terms of the earthly conversation.
It is a very early example of what we today would rightly identify as a new media panic. My friend Carrie Kaplan, a theatre history scholar at the University of Texas who writes, in part, on Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster at the Texas state capitol, has called Twitter a “theatocracy,” building on Samuel Weber’s work Theatricality as Medium. In the course of our many discussions on the power of Twitter in the context of social uprisings—specifically on its role in amplifying protests against Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion bill, HB 2—Kaplan sent me this quote from Weber:
As already noted, the Greek word theatron designates the place from which one sees. The notion of theatrocracy retains this reference to a specific place or site, but it is disrupted, disorganized by the different media that converge upon it. … It is a place where one comes and goes, and yet where one is not free in one’s movements. … What results then, is described by the Athenian … “Everybody knows everything, and is ready to say anything; the age of reverence is gone, and the age of irreverence and licentiousness has begun.” From Plato to the present, this verdict has served to condemn “the media.”
If that doesn’t describe contemporary mainstream critiques of Twitter—”the age of reverence is gone, and the age of irreverence and licentiousness has begun”—I’m not sure what does. And it is an age-old critique.
Trigger Warnings and Making Visible the Invisible
More recently—though not only recently—mainstream journalists and institutional gatekeepers have turned to wonder at, and upon, the “trigger warning,” particularly in the context of its use in academia and on social media, specifically Twitter. In a March 2014 New Republic piece, writer Jenny Jarvie worries that trigger warnings—basically, content notes used to warn readers of subject matter that they may find “triggers” the re-experience of aspects of past trauma—signal a “wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense.”
Personally, I think a world in which folks have a widespread aversion to causing harm and to giving offense sounds fine and damn dandy, particularly in light of the fact that much of the time, people who are “offended” are derided as being hypersensitive. As if falling victim to racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive rhetoric and actions is somehow the original sin, rather than the racism, sexism, or oppression itself. I don’t want people who are hurt by the thoughtlessness and malice of those with privilege to just get over it—I want people with privilege to stop acting with thoughtlessness and malice.
I do hear the people who argue that trigger warnings can be patronizing or performative, or that their ubiquity downplays the specific psychological experience of being triggered, but fundamentally I believe trigger warnings can be a great step toward demonstrating accountability and compassion. I believe their presence, even if they are unnecessary—and I don’t believe they are unnecessary—does less harm than their absence.
But I have to ask: Why are folks so anxious about trigger warnings, and what are they anxious about? I think the answer to that aligns with the reasons that many folks tend to be so anxious about Twitter: a call both to examine and address one’s own position of privilege, and to face accountability for same. I’ll take as an example two Twitter-related pieces published earlier this month on Slate, written by Katy Waldman.
I don’t mean to pick on Waldman, but I do think these two articles, and her approaches to the two, are notably different. I’d like to highlight them because I think they are an interesting exercise in identifying when and how the mainstream media—and I situate Slate as a powerful, topic-setting mainstream media outlet—expresses a fear of relinquishing control over the conversation to people who, historically, have not had access to high-profile bylines or even appeared much in mainstream media in any capacity, except to play the thug, ghoul, scapegoat, or victim.
In a piece headlined “Hashtags Are the New Scare Quotes,” Waldman thoughtfully explores the ways in which Twitter users employ hashtags to soften, or distance themselves from, their own tweets. Waldman quotes three people—two of them linguists—who opine on the implications of this particular Twitter phenomenon.
In a second piece, headlined “Twitter Is No Place for Trigger Warnings,” Waldman takes up the case against, well, trigger warnings. Waldman does a bit of aggregation and soft-quoting from other reporters’ work, and quotes a one-line response to a tweeted question from Waldman directed at feminist activist and journalist Jessica Luther (@scatx), whose tweet concerning gang rape Waldman takes as her prime example of the pointlessness of Twitter trigger warnings. Waldman concludes that “if you are an established feminist writer, maybe you can assume that a meaningful fraction of your followers have heightened sensitivity to issues like assault,” but that generally speaking, noisy and crowded Twitter is a place where trigger warnings have “no place.” (Full disclosure: Luther is a personal friend of mine.)
Now, there are all kinds of reasons these two articles might have turned out the ways they did—the first, an interrogative, good-faith meander through multiple takes on a particular use of new media, the second written in the style of the kind of hyperbolic, counterintuitive opinion piece that Slate has become known for—that probably include deadline pressures, availability of sources, or just Waldman’s general familiarity with the subject before tackling it. (I tweeted at and emailed Waldman to see if I could pick her brain about how these stories were developed, but she did not respond to my questions.)
But the truth is that a piece that argues against the use of trigger warnings in any but a handful of explicitly feminist-identified spaces isn’t counterintuitive. It’s a reinforcement of the status quo, one that does the same thing that society at large does every day: tells survivors of trauma that they are too sensitive, that they cannot be accommodated, that they cannot and should not expect safety, that we are so, so very sorry but *shrug* this is just how the world works, so please try not to be so offended.
Waldman didn’t take the time to observe that Twitter actually can be filtered to exclude tweets that contain certain words (or letters, ahem, such as the commonly used trigger warning abbreviation “TW”), that certain users can be muted or “safe space” lists created according to a user’s particular needs. That’s not to say that Twitter can be made into a safe space all day every day, but there are ways of making it safer—and trigger warnings can play a big part in that.
Put simply, Waldman treated the idea of ironic hashtags with care, even humor, and credibility; trigger warnings, in contrast, got much less leeway.
What trigger warnings do, in part, is make visible what is so often invisible: the many and various aggressions, micro-aggressions and -isms that manifest in the way people use language to talk about the world. Trigger warnings are, in a way, an act of resistance—just as the democratizing power of Twitter, and its use by marginalized people, sometimes gives (loud, organized) voice to their hard and often painful and necessary truths.
Take, for example, this tweet from a New School professor who said that mandated trigger warnings on academic syllabi would “put [him] out of business.” Or the politics editor at Business Insider who says that he thinks online trigger warnings are “always” ridiculous.
Now, a mandated trigger warning is a very different thing from a voluntary one, and I’m no fan of forced speech in academia or any other context—in any case, I think a mandated trigger warning looks nothing much like the greater goal, which is for people to be actively thoughtful about the ways they talk and write, and the things they talk and write about, and their potential impact and meaning to their audience. If you don’t need a trigger warning, it’s not hard to skip over a few words. If you do need a trigger warning, it can make all the difference.
But I think the resistance, on behalf of people in these gatekeeper positions, people who are positioned to define and shape and lead conversations, to the very idea of trigger warnings is itself very telling. A trigger warning, mandated or otherwise, is not going to put anyone out of business. And if it does? I wonder what business that person was in in the first place.
Whether we’re talking about trigger warnings or hashtag activism, criticism of Twitter has become strongest whenever and wherever Twitter users employ the medium to challenge establishment thinking—including establishment thinking in social justice movements. And that speaks not only to the power of Twitter as an organizing platform, but to the fuzzy borders—I might argue the nigh-nonexistent borders—between “real life” and social media, and the inherent biases in social justice movements that allow those of us in such movements to consider our own privilege to be sacred whenever we feel it is seriously threatened.
Twitter “Activism” Failures: Not Where You Think
The reality is that there are, in my view, truly pointless and toothless uses of Twitter that have pretensions toward political activism but which somehow escape the ire of critics who decry the uselessness—and yet the simultaneous divisiveness—of hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen or #CancelColbert.
I’m talking specifically about the respectively right- and left-wing hashtags #TCOT and #UniteBlue, touted in their infancies as being the ultimate uniters of the best, most engaged Twitter politicos, or the dogged meaninglessness of #TeamFollowBack. These massive, ubiquitous, and contextless hashtags advance no conversation and are themselves so overridden with trolling, meta-trolling, and hackery as to be rendered into something wholly without shape or direction.
Indeed, if #TCOT and #UniteBlue are not used by Twitterers aiming to straight-up troll the other team, they are airy little farts tacked on to tweets on the off-chance someone else in the Twittersphere is sniffing around for some follow-backs.
I have a blessed (#blessed) lack of engagement with the #TCOT crowd, but have become somewhat more familiar with #UniteBlue, as I frequently have #UniteBlue “progressives” meandering into my Twitter mentions to tell me what a hopeless, red state shithole Texas is, and how happy they’ll be when the state secedes—making the “unite” part of “unite blue” particularly risible to this Texan.
#UniteBlue’s founders have been criticized on a few blogs as opportunist charlatans—but not, it seems, in the wider media. How has #UniteBlue escaped getting the counterintuitive commentary treatment, the hand-wringing headlines wondering if progressive online activism’s favorite hashtag is drowning itself in a pool of its own blue blood?
I put it to you that because #UniteBlue scares no one, challenges no status quo, and demands no accountability, we are unlikely to see panicked think-pieces questioning its integrity or the intentions of its founders or users, or welcoming its obsolescence.
Instead, we will very likely continue to see national and international media outlets engaging in outright Twitter concern-trolling when marginalized groups and users hit a nerve, all the while soaking up the (righteous) outrage hits, in which case: Jesus be a DoNotLink URL.
Through all of this, I do not at all mean to downplay what a disturbing, scary—and indeed, toxic and dangerous—place Twitter can be, though not, I think generally, for the reasons that institutional gatekeepers and hit-hungry hyperbolic headliners would have us believe. Twitter users who launch organized online campaigns or even casually speak out against powerful media players and celebrities, against established political groups and movements, against oppressive social and cultural norms, and against unchecked privilege writ large—or who, perhaps most significantly, have the outright nerve to simply use the Internet as a person of color, a trans* person, a woman, a disabled person, a Native person, or really anything other than a cisgender white heterosexual male person—often and maybe even almost always face harassment and abuse both offline and off.
Twitter is a place where relentless racists swarm the mentions of women of color with rape and death threats, creating troll account after troll account as they are blocked and reported. It is a place where trans women are harassed and outed by trans-exclusive radical feminists. It is a place rife with casual ableism and where people with mental illness are derided in the same terms—usually “crazy” or “insane” and related variants—as are mass murderers. It is a place where fat people, especially fat women, are told, day in and day out, to commit suicide. This is Twitter, this is toxic, and it is real.
But I think much of the mainstream critique of Twitter itself seems to be a red herring. When powerful Western feminists write off the whole of Twitter as a “poisonous well of bad faith and viciousness,” when they deride trigger warnings, when they decry hard conversations as divisive, what they are angry about is almost never Twitter itself, but the ways in which people, people who they’d like to otherwise ignore or use as occasional tokens, have the gall to go and use it.
I suspect that people who don’t want to hear this are going to write it off as a derailing attempt, in the classical style of how can you care about _____ when there are starving children in ______, and they are 100 percent correct: I am absolutely, positively, without any doubt totally interested in derailing any and all conversations that involve slagging on marginalized people for talking to each other about the perpetuation of systemic oppression and silencing, and instead turning them into conversations that involve slagging on the actual perpetuation of systemic oppression and silencing.
By and large, the people who I see deriding Twitter as a fundamentally “toxic” or unproductive social justice space lacking in substance and nuance are people who already benefit from—and in some cases, take for granted—their status as conversation-starters, as public thinkers, as people who (rightly) perceive Twitter as a threat to their much-enjoyed, much-protected ability to direct or dominate the messaging surrounding their respective political causes, or at least to have it done by people who look and think as they do, and whose privilege mirrors their own.
Twitter is a place where people—and institutions, and media outlets, with RH Reality Check being no exception—can and should be held accountable for their mistakes, for their fuck-ups, for both the intentional and unintentional perpetuation of oppression, silencing, and marginalization. There is simply no tool like Twitter for doing this kind of indispensable social justice work.
It may be that some Twitter users—scratch that, some actual living, breathing human beings who make use of the Internet as a medium, since they aren’t robots after all—will never make peace with the politicians, media-makers, and gatekeepers that the platform itself enables them to criticize. And they shouldn’t have to. I get a sense that people who believe Twitter is a poisonous cesspool have a similar sense that, in some ill-defined but preferably real quick time after grievances have been aired, complaints made, and apologies issued, everything should go back to “normal.”
We Can Do Better, and We Can Do It on Twitter
But if we in our various social justice movements know anything, it is that oppression and marginalization are offenses both in the aggregate and the specific, and our memories are valuable things. We should not, and cannot, dictate the terms on which other people owe us an endless cycle of criticism and forgiveness. To demand equilibrium, to demand normalcy, is to go against the very grain of social justice as an ideology. It is not on people who have been hurt by those who claim to be their allies to bestow forgiveness, but on those of us who have been and are criticized to do better in our future actions.
And that those of us with privilege—either in our identities, embodiments, or institutional affiliations—might learn what “do better” looks like, I come to you with a suggestion, and it’s a simple one: Use Twitter to fuck up your own echo chamber. Use it to follow people who do not share your points of privilege, and who are not afraid to say so. Use it to follow people who not only do not share your points of privilege but who themselves use Twitter to talk righteous shit about the crap they have to take from people like you.
I don’t know if doing this will be for you what it was for me. I do know that Twitter has opened my eyes to a world of intersectional feminist praxis that is obscured, I think often deliberately, by the fundamentally exclusive nature of what I think of as “proper byline” journalism and its gatekeepers, who are deeply invested—as deeply invested as any of us are—in white, heteronormative, cisgender, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy, even when they are not white, heterosexual, cisgender men, and even when they are writing for self-identified feminist blogs and media outlets.
Twitter is a place where listening and watching and learning can happen in real time from and with and on the terms of real people; it is an experience that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else in a blog post, an investigative feature, or the most thorough and incisive thinkpiece. On Twitter, users can watch and listen as people they might never cross paths with in their otherwise insulated—sometimes intentionally—lives wrestle with, joke about, rant on, and fight against the relentless aggression of a society that devalues their very existence, a society that actively works to silence and erase them.
This must be done with caution, restraint, and respect. Often we watchers and listeners rush to speak, anxious to gather the allotment of ally cookies to which we believe we are entitled. Often we are one click of the “return” button between experiencing a learning moment and launching into another self-aggrandizing round of the “not all!” chorus.
We absolutely must resist the “not all!” urge. If somebody’s tweets sting, we should ask ourselves why—and ask ourselves, If I were making a similar complaint against a person or group who enjoys a privilege I don’t have, would I see that criticism, that joke, that rant, that snarky aside, as hysterical, unreasonable, reactionary, or needlessly incendiary?
However, I do worry that in advocating for this, I am advocating something that may amount to voyeurism, to passive allyship, even to a kind of online “ghetto tourism.” I put that concern to Mikki Kendall, and she told me via email that she sees “a significant risk in privileged people following marginalized folks on Twitter if they’re not prepared to actually listen and comprehend.”
Twitter can be entertaining, but it isn’t a television show where the cast disappears when the channel changes. Twitter can be educational, but it isn’t a lecture hall and its users are not your instructors, and they are not here to gently guide you through an intersectional awakening. They are real people, using Twitter to talk in real time to people they care about talking to—and, in many cases, people they want to talk at and about and around.
Kendall adds that privileged would-be allies on Twitter can be especially dangerous “if they come to think those people are on Twitter to educate them and not simply because they’re using social media to be social.”
Using social media to be social—imagine that. Those of us who branch out and expand our “following” lists should respect and honor the remarkable privilege of bearing witness, and expect to be owed nothing by the people we follow. In turn, we should expect a great deal from ourselves.
Kendall puts it better than I can: “A lot of really understanding what’s happening on Twitter is about thoughtful engagement, doing your own heavy lifting (read the books, click the links, use the power of Google) and not about demanding that random strangers educate you, hand hold you, or behave in ways that you find palatable when they’re engaging with others.”
The truth is this: Marginalized people are already doing the work. They have been doing the work, in many cases, for generations upon generations. They do not need saviors; they don’t need experts. Those of us with privilege—cis privilege, white privilege, ability privilege, class privilege, gender privilege, citizenship privilege, etc.—must be willing to step back, to listen, to study, to contemplate. It can be a difficult and awkward thing—what we hear will not be easily understood, indeed it will be painful and even strange to our eyes and ears—but it is a necessary thing. And indeed, “the work” often means demanding that privileged allies do better, now.
Indeed, those of us with privilege, however that privilege manifests, need to: not actively silence marginalized communities, not actively appropriate their work, not refit, recast, and recenter their work to such a degree as to make it unrecognizable—which almost always translates to “palatable, or at least non-threatening, to existing oppressors” and as a result, fundamentally harmless. When we do not diversify our media consumption—when we do not dismantle and rebuild and remodel our own echo chambers into something more challenging—we put ourselves at risk not only of eventually having to rely on a “but, but, good intentions!” defense, but of never seeing the damage that the massive wrecking ball of “good intentions” can do when every privileged person expects to be able to use it.
And what allies must also do, in addition to the work of listening, is to hold each other accountable. Writer Sydette Harry, who tweets as @BlackAmazon, told me that “it is very popular on the left to mock the racism of the right but ignore the happy racism on the left.” She pointed to the recent American Prospect piece, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media,” which graphed the gross underrepresentation of minorities on the editorial staff at magazines like Slate, Salon, and the Prospect itself.
Harry also pointed out that the Republican National Committee has hired 42 Black and Latino “field representatives” to do outreach across the country over the last several months. In comparison, the Prospect showed that its 13 graphed publications employed 43 total minority editorial staffers. In this climate, people who work in progressive politics, who work at liberal magazines, who participate in social justice work, cannot afford to not talk about its race problem, and yet when people of color demand to have the conversation, there are calls for deferment, accusations of divisiveness.
Which brings me back to the original point of this piece: The aspects of Twitter that mainstream journalists and institutional gatekeepers seem to decry the most are, demonstrably, the aspects of Twitter which give the least deference to existing power structures, which create new channels and standards of communication, and which agitate, irritate, and afflict those—perhaps especially those—who only want a little bit of change, only a little bit at a time, and only on their terms.
An Opportunity: “And” Over “Or”
In the course of completing my final edits on this piece, something terrible happened: a man allegedly shot and killed six people—seven, including himself—in Southern California on Friday night, after leaving behind an explicitly racist, misogynist manifesto detailing the thinking that drove him to murder. Within hours, it sparked the #YesAllWomen hashtag, which by Monday had logged an estimated one million tweets from women sharing their heartbreaking, powerful, frightening, and, perhaps most importantly, shared experiences navigating a world of patriarchy where the threat of violence is never far away, and is often all too close.
Predictably, some men refused to situate the Santa Barbara murders as having anything at all to do with culturally ingrained, even mandated, misogyny. At TIME, Chris Ferguson wrote that “Rodger appears to have indeed been a misogynist, but this misogyny appears to have raged from within, a product of his anger, sexual frustrations and despondency rather than anything ‘taught’ to him by society.”
Either Chris Ferguson has identified the first and only human being on planet Earth to ever have wholly escaped the influence of human culture (alert the press!), or he’s appallingly, disgustingly wrong—perhaps willfully so. In a world where a writer can enjoy a TIME byline while claiming that a man who explicitly said that his hatred for women motivated him to murder them wasn’t at all influenced by a misogynist culture, we desperately need #YesAllWomen.
But we also need another hashtag, #YesAllWhiteWomen, a tag begun after what always seems to happen, happened: when a conversation like this takes off—either online or offline—cis white women’s experience is the one that is privileged and heard above all others—not because all cis white women are self-absorbed, racist jerks motivated by the singular intent of oppressing people of color (though, it could be said, some are), but because this is how white supremacy manifests everywhere, and social justice movements are, again, not an exception. I don’t read #YesAllWhiteWomen as a personal “fuck you” to white women any more than I read #YesAllWomen as a personal “fuck you” to the men of planet Earth.
In fact, #YesAllWhiteWomen is full of the kind of information that all people need to concern themselves with: the fact that an estimated 80 percent of Native American women who have been raped report that their assailants were not themselves Native, that women of color face a wider wage gap than white women, that when women of color ask for their experiences to be centered, they are called divisive.
One of the most telling #YesAllWhiteWomen moments, to me, was a tweet from a white woman to a woman of color activist on Twitter. In two parts, she wrote that #YesAllWomen “doesn’t discourage in any way any women from talking about her unique story due to race/transgender/disability.”
If this way of thinking sounds familiar, it’s because you encounter it every time someone says that women are totally welcome in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, it’s just that the ladies don’t really have the aptitude for it. You encounter it every time someone says, Oh sure, some women are very funny—but the unfortunate truth, if only we are brave enough to admit it, is that there aren’t very many female comedians because they just aren’t as good at comedy as men are. You encounter it every time someone says that they’d love to see more female CEOs—but golly, these women just keep dropping themselves out of the workforce after their first child, independent of any and all other influencing factors, so whadderyagonnado?
You don’t have to put up a “BOYS ONLY!” sign for women to get the message that they are unwelcome. Similarly, you don’t have to put up a “WHITE FOLKS ONLY” sign or an “ABLE PEOPLE ONLY” sign for people of color, for disabled folks to recognize when their experiences will not be treated with credulity and respect, will at best be treated as valid peripheral issues, but never, ever centered, until such a time as their experience can be used to show the generosity and big-hearted
ness of their white or able or otherwise privileged “allies.”
In the wake of #YesAllWomen, a number of major-name publications, liberal-leaning and otherwise, have published pieces applauding the hashtag, including NewYorker.com, in a piece titled “The Power of #YesAllWomen,” which rightly and enthusiastically praises the very incredible weekend hundreds of thousands of people just had bonding with each other online, telling their stories, and speaking their truths. But where is #YesAllWhiteWomen, when we write breathless recaps praising the “power” of Twitter? Well, #YesAllWhiteWomen can’t fit into a story like that, because the “power” of something like #YesAllWhiteWomen is that it makes plain—painfully, particularly to people who would love to believe that “woman” is some kind of universal category, conveniently reflected most truthfully in the lived experience of cisgender white women—that the experience of “woman” is complicated, is layered, is a many-faceted assemblage that sometimes includes being oppressed, marginalized, and silenced by other women.
Some will say that now is not the time to talk about this whole race thing—that what we need now is unity, solidarity. But now has not been the time for too long. If not now, when? The truth is that #YesAllWomen and #YesAllWhiteWomen are not mutually exclusive. What they offer is not division, but an important opportunity to have an “and” moment, rather than an “or” moment—but only if we are willing to set aside our pride and privilege and listen. It is not women of color who are turning #YesAllWhiteWomen into a space of division, but those of us with white privilege for whom “not all!” defensiveness trumps self-reflection.
There is so much to learn, if only we would be willing to hear those of us for whom Twitter is a remarkable, and sometimes the only, space for release and reckoning—and in the end, we will be better activists, better allies, better humans, for doing so.
Twitter activism is most powerful when its users eschew platitudes and calls for unity and instead ask—nay, demand—that we all be and do better from the get-go. Because Twitter is people. Twitter is not a magical and sentient beast that can only be tamed by calls for solidarity and hand-holding until such a time as it is convenient to address systemic oppression in a manner and medium acceptable to the gatekeepers of the world—a medium that, coincidentally, always seems to be one that pays by the word.