To be a black woman online is to realize that any minute, your safe space can be compromised.
The anonymity of the internet enables Red Pill fanatics and basement-dwelling trolls to spew hatred without serious repercussions. When the general public talks about the need to combat online bullying and harassment, the discussion rarely includes women of color. Black women should not have to accept racist, misogynistic violence from faceless cowards lurking behind egg icons. The threshold of harassment that black women face online, especially within the context of social media, is beyond tolerable. It is toxic and menacing, abuse ranging from doxxing (exposing a person’s personal information, including home address, telephone number, etc.) to death threats.
Take for example the abuse from racist Twitter users aimed at Ghostbusters actress and SNL cast member Leslie Jones. The Ghostbusters movie recently premiered, and angry fanboys were feeling extra vicious. Jones faced a seemingly endless barrage of racist attacks. She retweeted the insults in hopes that Twitter support would ban the users. Unfortunately, support turned a blind eye to the mounting abuse. One user compared her to a gorilla, to which Jones responded, “I don’t understand.” Another troll with an icon of a stick figure in an SS uniform said, “She’s extremely ugly.” The collection of usernames and accompanying icons were just what one would expect from an army of human garbage.
Understandably, Jones quickly lost the motivation to expose her attackers. Fans, costars, and Ghostbusters director Paul Feig expressed support for Jones. Twitter user @MarissaRei1 started the hashtag #LoveforLeslieJ in order to combat the cruel, crude, and ruthless abuse. Although it was comforting to see people stick up for Jones, it’s disappointing and disheartening that such hatred could go unmonitored and unpunished. Do we really want to condone and encourage an online culture that permits the daily dehumanization of black women?
When dissecting pop culture, the obvious racial bias is magnified. There’s no shortage of white knights for white women. Writing for The Guardian, Ijeoma Oluo noted, “Many other women of color – especially black women – on the internet face the same abuse that Jones is now facing, and we will tell you that this isn’t a harmless prank, this isn’t about hurt feelings or even the sting of a racist comment.” She added, “This is a deliberate campaign of abuse perpetrated on us to keep us off of the internet, and it needs to be taken seriously.”
In a 2014 study conducted by Women, Action, and the Media, the group gathered 811 reports of harassment on Twitter. Out of the 161 serious cases cited and reported to Twitter staff, “Twitter wound up taking action on only 55 percent of those cases—most frequently, they suspended accounts temporarily.”
Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it would be implementing a new protocol to deal with online harassment. Nick Pickles, Twitter UK’s Head of Policy, said, “This comes from the top of the company – safety is never finished.” Unlike the US, the UK has laws that “offer users some protection against more extreme harassment and several people have been jailed.” Twitter’s publicly documented efforts to deal with online toxicity almost seem hollow. Considering the fact that online abuse of women has become the expectation, rather than the exception, such a promise feels like an empty-hearted effort to placate those who demand stricter and swifter retribution.
Although I obviously do not have the same global platform as Jones, I’ve faced online misogynoir. Whenever I write about race, I’m met with instant backlash. Not all of the responses I receive are cruel, but it’s too easy to remember the negative. No matter the type of essay or article, from personal essay to pop culture commentary, the racists are angry that I dare even to speak up. In real life and online, I’ve been told that I’m “too sensitive” or that I’m the “true racist” for rightly naming my enemy. In the eyes of the racists, white supremacy is a nonexistent institution, just as the American Dream is possible for anyone willing to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.
When Jones experienced racism, some Twitter users recommended that she take the high road and simply ignore the abuse. Why must black women be expected to turn the other cheek? Perhaps it has to do with the stereotype of the Strong Black Woman. But if studies have proven that racism can have a dire impact on a black person’s mental and physical health, why aren’t these rampant incidents of abuse take much more seriously?
In an interview with Alternet, an African-American woman with more than 116,000 Twitter followers said that she switches her avatars in order to get some relief from the trolls. With the icon of a white man, Sydette noticed a drastic difference in user interaction. She observed, “As a white man, that was the most fun I had online in terms of actually getting to talk to people and not be insulted by them.” Sydette added, “People thought I was wrong, people thought I was ridiculous but nobody thought I was stupid. I received fewer slurs and people were a lot more interested in my thought process than when I was anything else.”
As a black woman writer, my work is never separated from my gender and/or racial identity. On the other hand, my racial background is a vital part of my personal identity. I would not be the person I am today without the acknowledgment of my roots. I fiercely protect and defend my ethnic heritage because for too long, I was made to believe it made me worthless and ugly. I
Before taking a break from Twitter, Jones said: “WTF!! These people hate themselves. You have to hate yourself to put out that type of hate. I mean, on my worst day I can’t think of this type of hate to put out. I don’t know how to feel. I’m numb. Actually numb. I see the words and pics and videos. Videos, y’all. Meaning people took time to spew hate.…Like no shame or compassion for human life. It scares the fuck out of me!”
Social media can be an inspirational tool when in the hands of the benevolent, and an extension of our culture’s legacy of racism when under the control of the malicious and malevolent. Until Twitter makes good on their word to take drastic disciplinary action against these vile attackers, black women are forced to make the choice between staying on social media and not backing down against very real, very disturbing threats or retreating for the sake of sanity and self-care.
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.