“Raving Amazons”: Antiblackness and Misogynoir in Social Media

I can’t help but see historical parallels in the multiple forms of antiblack backlash Black women have received on social media over the past few years.

by I’Nasah Crockett on June 30th, 2014

“[David Marriott is] not trying to condemn Black people for an unconscious that has as a constituent element hatred of blackness, but he’s trying to suggest that there is violence in the world which is coordinated with Negrophobia. There’s the fantasy of a Black as a phobic object, an object that will destroy you and you don’t even know how it will destroy you, just an anxious threat, you know. And he says, okay, that’s a fantasy, but what’s important, what psychoanalysis hasn’t really figured out, is that what’s important about this fantasy is that it is supported and coordinated with all the guns in the world . . .”

Frank Wilderson, interview

If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery – skewed life chances, limited access to healthcare and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”

Saidiya Hartman, “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route”, p. 6

Antiblackness, in a rough-hewn nutshell, is the structuring logic of the modernity and the foundation of the contemporary world we live in.

It is the glue and the string running through our conceptions of what it means to be free, what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be a legitimate and productive member of society, what it means to be Human, and what it means to be the anti-Human. Antiblackness is the structural positioning of the Black (“the Black” here being a marker for a certain type of subjectivity comparable to Marx’s “the worker” – shoutout Frank Wilderson) as an object that is fungible and able to be accumulated like any other wicket churned out by the process of capitalism; it is the fact of Black folks being open to perpetual and gratuitous violence that needs no definitive prior provocation or “reason;” the “reason” is the fact of Blackness (see: getting shot for walking home with some Skittles, getting shot while being handcuffed in the backseat of a car, getting shot for calling 911, being beaten for staring at someone in a “dehumanizing” way, and on and on).

It is, to echo Hartman, the afterlife of slavery: a logic that collapses the past and the present and places violence towards the Black within a range of acceptable daily practices.

Certainly antiblackness is attitudinal – see the libidinal economy, i.e. the systems of desire and instincts and fantasies and repulsion around skin tone, hair types, bodies that makes itself apparent in Eurocentric beauty standards or the fact that lighter-skinned African American women receive shorter prison sentences than their darker-skinned counterparts. But that’s how logic and structures operate, they imbue everything that springs forth from them. Our lives and societies (because when we speak of the afterlife of race-based chattel slavery, Arab and trans-Atlantic, we are speaking of the entire world) are fundamentally shaped by it, not only institutionally, but also at the level of the everyday, including crossing the street. So of course it makes itself apparent in the supposedly brave new world (so different from any world that came before!) of social media.

Antiblack Backlash on Social Media

I myself joined both Twitter and Tumblr back in 2009, after experiences stretching back to high school with BlackPlanet.com, Myspace, Livejournal, and of course Facebook. With Twitter and Tumblr, however, I joined after spending a year or two lurking on the edges of a particular group of (mostly) women of color, and moving onto social media around the same time they did allowed me to connect with them in ways I wasn’t able to when the main platform was, say, WordPress. For us, and for the many Black women I have since connected and built with since 2009, social media offers us yet another way to build our “beloved communities,” to extend the networks of love, camaraderie, and joyous support that have long existed in our meatspace communities – hair salons, churches, Black student unions, kitchen tables, etc.

Social media also becomes a central site for much of our activism, from the multinational #BringBackOurGirls hashtag to holding media outlets accountable for publishing blatant racism. We are also theory houses, circulating and challenging discourses and practices that negatively impact our lives as Black women, and making critical connections that are often missing from the media that surrounds us. I can’t help but see historical parallels to, say, early 20th century Pullman Porters secretly distributing copies of The Chicago Defender to the Black folks they came across. What we’re doing is nothing new, but being on social media means that this networking is happening in the public eye.

I also can’t help but see historical parallels in the multiple forms of antiblack backlash Black women have received on social media over the past few years. The topic of surveillance in social media has been a hot one lately, but many discussions on it stop and end at the Edward Snowden/NSA type revelations over post-9/11, post-War on Terror invasions of privacy at the hands of an overzealous government. However, if we were to extend the idea of policing and surveillance further back in time, and expand it beyond the trope of it being primarily carried out by government employees, it becomes apparent that surveillance has already been a central part of the experience of Black women on Twitter. Recall that in the U.S., the police have their roots in slave patrols; policing and management of the potentially unruly Black bodies underlies the call for law and order and the constituent need for police. To quote Wilderson again, in society there is a “fundamental anxiety over where is the Black and what is he or she doing,” and in an antiblack world, every non-Black is deputized to patrol and manage the Blacks.

A 4chan comment: 'Good. If you have been following the Twitter, you'll see that a witch hunt is now underway. They recognized that most /pol/ accounts were black bitches. So now any Twitter accounts that aren't college educated white girls are outed as being fake. It's the perfect response to #solidarityisforwhitewomen.'

4chan comment, since deleted

Consider the #EndFathersDay hoax carried out by 4chan and the resulting Black feminist #YourSlipIsShowing counter-attack. 4chan’s attack was fundamentally on feminism itself, #EndFathersDay as a hashtag was meant to make feminism look like a form of anti-male extremism, turning moderates away from feminism while strengthening its opponents. While many mainstream media outlets swallowed the hoax hook and all, several individual Twitter users, led by @sassycrass and including myself, instead began to do some basic detective work. What we uncovered was an extended year-long plan, where 4chan users were to set up fake accounts where they would pretend to be Black women, women of color, trans women, and otherwise marginalized folks, infiltrate our spaces, study how we operate, then wage hashtag war.

A 4chan comment: Their victim complex is so strong that they actually believe it's all about them alone. This will just make them more determined to have their voices heard, which is a good thing. For too long white liberal women have been the face of feminism. Because of this, the general public believe that feminism is about equality and rape. With WoC anger and bigotry forced down the throats of millions, feminism will never recover. #GiveWoCAVoice

4chan comment, since deleted

They were successful, not just because they capitalized on the ever-present misogynoir within the mainstream feminist movement, but because stalking Black women online at this point is a common, acceptable practice.

The Mainstream Feminist Party Line

Consider this article from 2010, long before the 4chan operation and even before Twitter had gone fully mainstream. The title itself says it all:“Why I Stalk A Sexy Black Woman On Twitter (And Why You Should Too).” Written by Joel Johnson, a white guy, it’s a brief description of an anonymous Black woman on Twitter that reads like an anthropological description of an animal in the wild. “She’s a Christian, but isn’t afraid of sex. She seems to have some problems trusting men, but she’s not afraid of them, either. She’s very proud of her fiscal responsibility.”

“Sometimes I find her faith charming; other times it is frustratingly childish. ‘Thanks Lord for letting me see another day!’ can be followed by a retweeted ‘God is THE MAN!’”

The faux-intellectual condensation is easily skewered, but the sheer violence underlying the words makes it difficult to do so. It makes for a terrifying game of “is this 2010 or 1910?”

Of course this misogynoir-fueled stalking is usually done in the “name” of something, and that something is always implied as being better and greater than Black women. Johnson wraps up this essay with an upbeat note on the wonder of social media, how it can expand one’s insular circles and bring “the joy of discovery that can come by weaving a stranger’s life into your own.” But this joy and the newly expanded contact list is birthed through enacting violence against a Black woman. This is fundamentally the same idea put forth by 4chan, though the new world they hope to create is different than that of Johnson’s, I’d imagine. Yet, when the means are the same, how different are these supposed new worlds really?

Online spaces offered by the Left, including (and especially) those created by the mainstream feminist movement, rarely grant a reprieve to Black women. Instead, time and time again, the impulse towards surveillance and harassment of Black women is fully articulated and encouraged, rather than challenged or uprooted. In many ways, the language used to describe this group echoes 4chan, who painted us as hordes of near-mindless “black bitches” who have “the most power to cause chaos,” even as their violent campaign against Black feminists and the colluding silence from mainstream feminists on their campaign proved this to be untrue. But, if 4chan had indeed been paying attention to media surrounding the racism in feminism, could we blame them for this reading? They’re merely echoing the mainstream feminist movement party line.

Screenshot of Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars, subtitled: Empowered by social media, feminists are calling one another out for ideological offenses. Is it good for the movement? And whose movement is it? To illustrate the piece, there are shadows of women with cartoon-like talk-bubbles transposed over them, with hashtags like #tonepolicing #intersectionality #slutshaming #transphobia #racist

The trope of Black women browbeating white feminists into submission, for example, formed the central argument of Michelle Goldberg’s article entitled “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.” Her description of Black feminist twitter activity shares the ethnographic gaze of Johnson and fantastic language of 4chan. In describing the critique of the #Femfuture report, she says: “Online, the Barnard group—nine of whom were women of color—was savaged [emphasis mine] as a cabal of white opportunists.” Other descriptors throughout her piece include “trashing,” “threatening,” “chastisement,” and “perpetual psychodrama.” The Black feminist social media users, in Goldberg’s mind, seek not safety or liberation, but solely the “preening displays of white feminist abjection.” This nearly echoes 4chan word for word. I think this bears repeating – both 4chan and a leading Leftist publication have looked at the evidence – social media use and organizing done by Black women, utilizing Black women’s networks and informed by Black radical traditions including but not limited to Black feminism – and drawn the same conclusion: the true objective of all this Blackness is the abjection of white people.

To be fair, and if not fair at least historically accurate, neither Goldberg nor 4chan are the originators of this particular narrative. One hundred and four years ago, Howard Odum, in his opus Social and Mental Traits of the Negro: Research into the Conditions of the Negro Race in Southern Towns, described Black women thusly:

“Anger is found in its most violent form among negro women in their quarrels and fights, if appearances are to be relied upon. These negroes show absolutely no restraint. No adequate description of them can be given. At once ridiculous and pathetic, they stand in a class of their own. Torrents of the most violent abuse imaginable, words coined and used for the occasion, cursings and every form of profanity these are the prelude. Threats are more common than actions and the usual conviction can be only for disturbing the peace or for assault and battery. . . . During excitement of this kind such negroes are raving amazons, as it were, apparently beyond control, growing madder and madder each moment, eyes rolling, lips protruding, feet stamping, pawing, gesticulating with the usual accompaniments of anger. This frenzied madness, containing also a large degree of pleasurable feeling, seems beyond control to all powers of the negro community.”

Round two: what year is it again? The similarities between Goldberg and Odum’s rhetoric is almost eerie; almost, because this is how antiblackness operates. As the structuring logic of modernity it is trans-temporal, perpetuating itself through discourse as much as direct action. Goldberg might have taken umbrage at the comparison to Rebecca Latimer Felton, but if the language has barely changed? And more importantly, if the structural and relational position of Black women in comparison to the rest of Humanity has remained fundamentally unchanged? Then the comparison is accurate, and a vital one to make.

Self Defense and the “New” Worlds

There is much more that could be said about these historical continuities, including the continued erasure and pilfering of Black women’s labor (Golberg failed to cite any of the Black feminist responses to #Femfuture, which of course gave a more nuanced reading than she portrayed). However, I want to end by drawing attention to a key fulcrum that this discourse of Black Woman As Rage Beast That Must Be Quarantined And Controlled is dependent upon: the disavowal of injury. As a range of historians have shown, this particular construction of Black women can only stand if pain is understand to be beyond our experience. In other words, it’s impossible to hurt us. Slave law and society, and the many post-Emancipation laws that have followed it (to say nothing of the society), recognized Black women as having no selves to defend. Any act of self-defense is viewed as aggression, or at the very least it is misread and seen as unwarranted, if not outside the boundaries of civility entirely. Goldberg participates in this disavowal of injury when she rewrites the origins of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag as being a delayed response to #Femfuture, when in fact it was in response to a specific instance of interpersonal, misogynoir-fueled abuse – abuse that was facilitated by white feminists (shoutout Mizz Felton). But rather than address this event, which would inevitably lead to a discussion of institutionalized antiblackness within feminism, Goldberg instead displaces the violence onto the figure of the “savage” Black woman, effectively erasing her injury and the legitimacy of her response.

Cover of Ida B. Wells' pamplet, with an illustration of the author. Includes the title, author's name, and price listed as fifteen cents. The New York Age Print, 1892.

But such is the logic of antiblackness. In the end, though, I have my own historical continuities as well. For instance, I look to Felton’s contemporary, Ida B. Wells, who advised Black folks to “ponder the lesson” offered by African American communities who chose to arm themselves against violent whites: “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” #YourSlipIsShowing was an offshoot of Ida’s rifle, as is the number of means Black women have conjured up to protect each other online, especially in the absence of similar protections from either the platforms we’re on or our “allies” who share these spaces with us.

In an antiblack world, and the “new” worlds that come from it, self-defense may still be against social and civil law, but if we are to live, then it’s what we must do.