In Defense of Twitter Feminism

Call-out culture, gentrification on social media and the politics of feminist discourse online.

by Suey Park & David J. Leonard on February 3rd, 2014

A screenshot of The Nation's article on Toxic Twitter Feminism as it appears on their website. A tiny magazine in the top corner shows that this article was on the front page of the print subscription.

An effort to gentrify digital spaces in the name of safety and dignified discourse is sweeping the Internet, hoping to cleanse “pollution” by erasing undesirable influence.

“As Twitter makes its Wall Street debut, tensions are rising here on the spillover effects from the booming technology industry on real estate prices, rents and even the very cultural fabric of the city,” wrote Malia Wollan in The New York Times this past November.

With a booming tech industry, it’s no surprise that cities are becoming increasingly gentrified safe havens for white middle-class techies. Fostered by Google buses and friendly policies, the lived gentrification experienced by white techies is not limited to their apartments and coffee shops. It has spilled over into virtual spaces.

Whitney Erin Boesel, in The Society Pages, reflects on the language deployed by danah boyd, who described the ways white middle-class users leaving MySpace for Facebook mirrored “white flight.” Boesel argues that “Facebook (which was at first offered only to students at the most elite universities) was associated with the middle-class ideal of attending a four year college. Slowly, a pattern began to emerge: white and Asian students, more affluent students, and more ‘mainstream’ students were more likely to join or migrate to Facebook, while black and Latina/o students, less affluent students, and more ‘subcultural’ students were likely to join or keep using MySpace.”

Boesel discusses how “Facebook was safe and protected; MySpace was dangerous and full of predators.” History is repeating itself. Twitter is the new MySpace: a “dangerous” online “ghetto” that threatens white middle-class users. In other words, by not being a segregated space, Twitter is marked as an unsafe space for the white middle-class user who has to share a platform with people of color, especially when whiteness and privilege are made visible.

On “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter War”

The discourse around safety and online spaces was on full display with Michelle Goldberg’s recent piece, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter War.” In the words of Jamie Kilstein, “Michelle Goldberg’s writing is the print version of crossing the street when you see a group of black people.”

Goldberg’s piece chastising Mikki Kendall’s “bullying” behavior was on the cover of the Nation’s print publication. There, Goldberg controls the narrative of Mikki Kendall and shapes her as unsafe and dangerous, to an audience that is largely removed from digital interaction. Goldberg is able to plant the seed that digital spaces are unsafe because of intruders, an action which Andy Smith describes as “a bullying attack against those Black feminist invaders of the ‘safe space’ of white feminism.”

In a world where the voices of white middle-class heterosexual men and women are privileged, it is striking that Twitter, one of the few spaces that allows for counternarratives and resistance, is now facing a barrage of criticism. Audre Lorde in Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, discusses how women’s magazines only published prose and rejected poetry as a “serious” form of writing when poetry was the most economical. She notes how “we need to be aware of the effect of class and economic differences on the supplies available for producing art.” Similarly, women of color are already excluded from major publishing platforms, but are reprimanded for using available platforms such as Twitter and tumblr to write their own stories. Lorde, always writing into the future, reminds readers, “The need for unity is often misnamed as a need for homogeneity, and a Black feminist vision mistaken for betrayal of our common interests as a people.”

Only those with presumed safety in dominant society fear losing their privilege of comfort, along with possession and control over discourse in online spaces. People of color face real violence on the basis of their skin color. Black, brown, and gender non-conforming bodies even face police brutality, which shows that a lack of protection is normalized. In a world where whiteness means presumed innocence, safety, and entrance there is born a fear of anything contrary to unquestionable authority. The reaction white feminists are having to women of color feminists entering Twitter tends to problematize those who point out racism rather than question the integrity of the framework being critiqued.

The invoking of “toxic” is particularly instructive in that it normalizes online spaces in absence of these “polluting influences.” Seemingly ignoring the daily violence directed at women of color online, claims about the tranquility of online spaces in absence of these intrusions belies the facts on the ground. Dr. Brendesha Tynes, et al., in “Online Racial Discrimination and Psychological Adjustment Among Adolescents,” found that between 30-40% of youth of color experience racism online. According to Dr. Marcia Dawkins, “These young people were more likely to become depressed, anxious and, possibly, less successful academically.”

The Internet is toxic and violent, yet the recent narrative seems to reimagine virtual reality as a democratic nirvana seemingly disrupted by angry, disruptive, and divisive feminism.

The Internet’s Neighborhoods and Online Gentrification

Just as African Americans are more likely to experience the commonplace violence online – the systemic toxicity – they are more likely to live within neighborhoods degraded by environmental hazards. According to The Associated Press, an analysis showed that “in 19 states, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution seems to pose the greatest health danger.” Not surprisingly, African American children have an asthma rate 26 times that of white youth. Similar inequalities are evident in the fact that the children of mostly Latino farmworkers are more likely to experience birth defects because of exposure to pesticides, and with the reality that Navajo teenagers have cancer rates 17 times higher than the national average as a result of environmental toxins.

In the discussion of Twitter feminism, the deployed language of “toxic” or “polluting” feminism is striking given the desire to reclaim these spaces because they are “toxic” and a blight on Feminism or progressive causes. Just as middle-class whites are returning to neighborhoods, previously abandoned and “left behind” – resulting in environmental hardship – these “crusaders” are now seeking to “clean up” the Internet at the expense of already marginalized voices.

Whereas others seem to be focused on “cleaning up” or otherwise ridding the Internet of those undesirable intrusions, there remains a community of people committed to creating a more just on- and off- line space. The desire to “clean up” these spaces through displacing or silencing women of color, those critical yet marginalized voices, embodies a form of digital gentrification.

Gentrification represents a socio-historic process where rising housing costs, public policy, persistent segregation, and racial animus facilitates the influx of wealthier, mostly white, residents into a particular neighborhood. Celebrated as “renewal” and an effort to “beautify” these communities, gentrification results in the displacement of residents. This has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Gentrification is the result of not only policy decisions and economic incentives but also discourse that imagines neighborhoods of color as pathological and criminal, necessitating outside intervention for the good of all. We see the recent efforts to blame “Black Twitter” for divisions, to identify women of color feminism as a “toxic” intrusion, as not only an effort to reclaim these spaces but as attempting to do so while locating the OTHER as the problem.

In a recent conversation about coded racial language, Gina Harris stated how “Internet” is the new “urban”. In “post-racial” America, there is a continual desire to better mask racism rather than uproot its existence. Sarah Kendzior, who wrote her dissertation on the role of the internet in dictatorship, states in a personal interview, “People use ‘Twitter’ or ‘The internet’ to stand in for the specific groups of people who use online media to try to transform a power structure or challenge dominant narratives. We see rhetoric like this in countries like Uzbekistan, Kuwait or Turkey, where citizens are arrested for using the media their leaders condemn. This is why it is jarring to see similar rhetoric espoused by allegedly ‘progressive’ outlets who claim to stand for disparate values.”

This speaks to how power is maintained by oppressive forces through social control. Goldberg’s use of “emotionally savaged” to refer to those who have felt burned by engaging in discourse with women of color is racially charged – “savaged” referring to the “toxic” contagion which is implied as being the natural state of women of color. This implies that mere proximity to women of color is toxic. Such language does not expand the conversation but instead results in a continuation of a longstanding history that imagines bodies of color as disruptive and corrupting of the national landscape.

Additionally, Goldberg racializes call-out culture as being one directional, an act of aggression done solely to white feminists by women of color. However, in locating call-outs at the fingertips of Black women, Goldberg centers the conversation on white women’s fear rather than the disposability of Black women’s critiques and existence. There lies a preemptive fear of discourse across racial lines and therefore any conversation that happens automatically shifts blame from the White woman’s inability to understand race relations to the Black woman’s inability to educate.

Encouraging us to reflect on the culture of social media, while dreaming for a virtual reality based in “generosity and kindness,” Dr. Imani Perry reminded us in a personal interview that power, privilege, and structures of inequality remain in operation online: “Given the real power dynamics in this society, that is an inversion of the way bullying and marginalization generally works in the world of gender activism and otherwise. The commitment to narratives of white female innocence does far more damage to feminism than Twitter arguments.” To reconcile these material inequalities, to rectify the violence experience on and off-line, to combat the normalization of whiteness, and to mobilize in opposition these injustices necessitates a recalibration.

Silencing and “cleaning up” THOSE neighborhoods is not a pathway to justice but the creation of yet another space that privileges the already privileged and empowered.