New Vulnerabilities: Women of Color, Privacy, And The False Dualism Of Online and Offline

As women of colour, online spaces and social networks have enabled us to produce and control our own stories, build networks and communities and find our scattered tribes.

by Nehal El-Hadi on June 10th, 2015

We’ve never been so public, you and I.

We place our emotions in spaces that are immeasurable, post photographs of our loves for an unseen audience, chronicle one major life event after another after another. It can be overwhelming to think of how far our stories can travel, the colossal number of potential views. We do not believe that people are watching, reading, knowing us in these ways.

We protect ourselves in the ways we know how – crop unflattering photos, add filters. Write and edit and re-write and erase tweets. Perform (un)expectedly. Censor. I have become very curious about people’s drafts folders; I am way more interested in what we have decided is not worth sharing. What we decide to give to the world and what we decide to withhold, protect. These are new vulnerabilities.

Open book, the text so faint you can't read it.

Photo CC-BY Lali Masriera, filtered.

Rawiya Kameir, senior writer at The FADER and co-host of the Drake-themed podcast Trust Issues, is someone who, in her own words, “uses social media relentlessly,” as part of her work. “Even though I’m so deep into the internet, I try to conduct myself online the same way that I do offline. I don’t [know] if that’s like a weird internalization that’s a holdout from being from a generation that remembers what it was like to interact with people before the internet, but also can’t imagine not having the internet,” Kameir writes in an email interview.

My own academic research, driven by my online activities and what I observe in Internet spaces, investigates how women of colour in Toronto integrate their online presences into their offline city-building work. Through the course of my research, I have become more and more interested in how the separations and borders I had imagined existed were actually absent. It is a false dualism that separates online and offline lives.

In a 2011 post called “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality”, Nathan Jurgenson wrote:

“I am proposing an alternative view that states that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala [sic] The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic “first” and “second” self, but is instead an augmented self. A Haraway-like cyborg self comprised of a physical body as well as our digital Profile, acting in constant dialogue. Our Facebook profiles reflect who we know and what we do offline, and our offline lives are impacted by what happens on Facebook (e.g., how we might change our behaviors in order to create a more ideal documentation).”

While I agree with Jurgenson’s statements, I also believe that what he is proposing is not an alternative view, but what should be considered the norm.

“I’m never really offline, so I’d say the two worlds overlap more than they intersect,” Kameir writes. “The internet guides a lot of my offline life. I bookmark things to read, sneakers whose release dates I want to keep track of, shows or exhibits I’m interested in, etc.”

The Idea Generation is a Toronto-based monthly discussion series, and the first event asked: “Who Are You? Your Online Identity x Your Real Life One”. Rochelle Roberts, the organiser, manages and strategises her online presence in ways that prioritise the protection of her privacy.

Keeping her social media profiles unconnected, she says in an email interview, “I don’t talk about my personal life online, so my offline activities – unless they are related to an event – are largely not known to the online audience. I feel public posts on social media invite an audience, and there are certain things in my life that don’t need an audience. For instance, if I were to talk about my personal life, I’m essentially inviting people to comment on it. They may, or they may not, but I would feel any commentary to be intrusive. So to avoid that, I keep that lid closed.”

“It’s maybe cynical but I’ve resigned myself to the notion that there is no such thing as privacy,” writes Kameir. “Having covered tech for a couple of years, I’m pretty attuned to the horrible ways corporations violate privacy, but I’m less concerned about them. It’s the way privacy affects my immediate material well being that concerns me, so while I might accept a T&C without reading it, I’m conscious of the details of my personal life that I put online. I try to keep details about where I am pretty vague, and if I’m tweeting or Instagramming about a specific location, it’s usually after I’ve already left.”

I am unfazed by the familiarity expressed towards me by people outside of my inner circle. I am no longer surprised when casual acquaintances comment on details of my life or when strangers DM me in response to something I post. I keep in mind that I have no idea how my information is being received, processed, disseminated. I edit my online life accordingly, and I constantly re-assess and re-evaluate where my personal boundaries lie.

A woman holding up a camera phone in front of her face. Displayed on the phone is an inception-style repeat of the image, folding into itself infinitely.

Photo CC-BY Gabriela Pinto, filtered.

“Strangers can be weird. First, I’m always confused when people express an interest in having a relationship based on my online persona. It’s awkward, and it’s also irritating,” writes Kameir. ”I don’t like the back-and-forth of public, 140-character conversations, so when people respond to me expecting a reply or an exchange, it’s annoying. I’m like, why do you feel the need to tell me this? Online, social cues don’t work the way that they do offline, so there’s a lot of entitlement. It’s exhausting.”

Roberts writes: “I would say my online persona has a reputation for having a harder “edge” to it. But this is because I don’t share the moments in my life that would make me vulnerable. The celebrity life is very much a parallel to online/offline life for us non-famous folks. They have to determine how much they’ll share, because it becomes a Pandora’s Box. ”

As women of colour, online spaces and social networks have enabled us to produce and control our own stories, build networks and communities and find our scattered tribes. Hashtags morph into movements, followers into friends, networks into supports. Whenever geography permits, avatars are realised.

Feminista Jones, a “mental health social worker, sex-positive feminist writer, public speaker, and community activist from New York City”, writes in a piece for Salon that due to the connectivity and ubiquity of mobile technologies “black users of Twitter are able to interact with each other just about everywhere they go. Accessing and spreading useful information is as easy as opening one’s preferred Twitter app and hitting the retweet button a few times while waiting in line at the movies or riding the subway to work.”

These digital spaces have also exposed women of colour even further. The Internet breeds a sense of familiarity and entitlement. Trolling is a hobby, and misogyny and racism can be par for the course. Even the most innocuous tweets can invite malicious responses from unknown strangers. In April 2014, Christopher Carbone took part in #RaceSwapExp and tweeted for a week using a black woman’s avatar (Feminista Jones’ avatar, actually). He wrote about it here, and highlighted the “endless trolling, racist and misogynistic hate, tactics that silence and derail, demeaning assaults on [black women and women of color’s] humanity”.

Online and offline activities intersect, underlining the absence of a separation between the two. In “Change Agents of 2014: Black Women on Social Media,” in reference to online activism work that black women are doing, Kirsten West Savali writes that “[h]ashtags have led to tangible change in communities, and the implications of what that means for the future of activism are far-reaching.”

From the virtual to the physical and back again, hashtag campaigns like #YouOKSis, that promote intervention without escalation of street harassment encounters, and #IAmJada in response to the sexual assault and subsequent online bullying of a 16-year-old teen, illustrate how boundaries between online and offline lives for women of colour not only do not exist, but that the ability to navigate seamlessly between physical and virtual spaces has an increased significance… as does the protection of privacy and wellbeing in the face of these new vulnerabilities.