The State of Online Harassment: Decentering Whiteness and Colonization

The most marginalized groups deserve as much access, resources and social capital in aid against harassment as white victims.

by Izzy I. on December 15th, 2015

One of the problems we face in the digital world is that even in anti-harassment discourses, we are socialized to see whiteness as the overwhelming norm and default. Harassment against women online is a serious issue that needs to be tackled, especially considering how #GamerGate continued to have huge, horrible impact in the year 2015. However, we should not avoid scrutiny in dismantling how our anti-harassment conversations and understandings are still imbued with whiteness.

Whenever I come across conversations about the importance of ending online harassment against women, I wonder if they mean just white women, or do they also include women of color (such as myself)? Certainly, mainstream media’s tendency is to highlight white victims of harassment over other marginalized victims: a quick Google search on “CNN” and “GamerGate’’ portrays the movement as primarily targeting white, female gamers. The media is much quicker to sympathize with victims of harassment who are white, middle-class women… and although their experiences as victims of harassment and hypervisibility should never be dismissed, it is also significant to understand that painting white women as the sole priority in anti-harassment discourses is a reflection of white privilege.

Reels of film, for an old-fashioned projector.

Photo CC-BY Stefan, filtered.

What is missing from these conversations is how #GamerGate targeted many victims who are people of color. Many of these victims do not have the same strong support network, social capital, and financial access as some of the high-profile white women in the gaming industry. A Brazilian independent artist named Matheus Gregório Marques Lima told me about his experience being harassed by Gamergate, explaining: “In the start they loved to say I was from a backwards country with ignorant people, so I deserve to be harassed as I was inferior.” This shows the racist nature of Gamergate when they see a victim who is visibly marginalized and who lacks the same support network as white high-profile activists, and how third world people of color do not have the same luxury as white women in monopolizing anti-harassment discourses.

I experienced this directly when I was targeted by #NotYourShield, a #GamerGate offshoot which claims to be a space for minorities, but in practice employs the same white supremacist tactics that silence marginalized victims of harassment. When I criticized #NotYourShield on Twitter earlier this year, I received a barrage of white supremacist, sexist and Islamophobic remarks. It was a reminder of how misogyny and racism are never separate, as the Islamophobic remarks were embedded with feigned concerns for Muslim women. I was told that I was too “oppressed” as a Muslim woman to think for myself, and according to the harassers, I should be focusing on “freeing” myself instead of calling out #GamerGate’s misogyny.

I was a target because I am specifically, a visible Muslim woman of color who spoke out against their mob.

Whiteness being seen as the norm in the online and tech world is interrelated with colonization. The harassment campaigns led by #GamerGate itself is built largely on anti-Black racism. Sassycrass documented #Yourslipisshowing, which showed #GamerGate had its roots in misogynoiristic 4chan culture. Through #Yourslipisshowing, Black women have called out 4chan trolls who made imposter accounts in order to disrupt Black feminist spaces. As a result, these Black feminists have faced harassment, dismissal and more erasure compared to white women. When whiteness is made the pivot in anti-harassment discourses, the racialized origins of what started the harassment campaigns are ignored.

Chess board with a white Queen in focus.

Photo CC-BY Juanedc, filtered.

Colonization happens digitally in erasure against black people as well as third world people of color, while white high-profile victims of harassment mobs get more access, resources and sympathy by international media in comparison. Privileged white women themselves often hold unconscious bias, and their tendency to monopolize anti-harassment conversations is reminiscent of colonization: how white feminists are often seen as both “saviors” and “damsels in distress” at the same time. White women are seen as the “solution” to fix the problems of harassment, while white fragility makes them look like “damsels in distress” who need consistent sympathy above others who are more marginalized than them… a paradox that is present as a result of white supremacy and digital colonization.

Furthermore, white women are given movie and book deals as a result of being seen as the face of anti-harassment, opportunities to start anti-harassment organizations, and invitations to major tech companies as experts. Meanwhile, Black women who fight against both the anti-Black racism and sexism found in organized harassment, are still not given those similar opportunities.

Beyond GamerGate, Racism and Sexism are Not Separate

While the organized harassment campaigns by #GamerGate have continued to have impact throughout the whole of year 2015, it is essential to note that the issue of harassment is beyond just #GamerGate. In a sense, #GamerGate is more of a symptom, its roots found in cultural misogyny, colonization and white supremacy. In order to dismantle organized harassment, we need to look at dismantling these roots.

The problem with isolating #GamerGate as the unique cause, as the “main villain” of social justice in tech and gaming, is that it overlooks the actual root causes that have historically silenced the marginalized since the 90s. It is much like dichotomizing the ‘extreme’ overt racists of right-wingers as the “primary” problem, while falsely positioning the Left liberals who speak out against the Right as inherently progressive and pro-diversity. This same mentality has allowed anti-GamerGate activists on Twitter to use #GamerGate as a shield to deflect critique of how they themselves contribute to erasure of its most marginalized victims. This recalls the playbook of white Left liberals, who say things like, “but we need to be united” and “why are you angry at me? I’m on your side!” when challenged about their privilege and tendency to dominate others in social justice spaces.

When the roots are not examined, when colonization is enabled, silencing takes a stronger hold. Silencing continues as “diversity” and “progress” become buzzwords to make white anti-harassment activists the first and sole priority.

Veins in a flower, illuminated in sunlight.

Photo CC-BY LadyDragonflyCC – >;<, filtered.

We need to move past conversations on how “female gamers” are targeted by #GamerGate, to be more inclusive of how the most marginalized groups deserve as much access, resources and social capital in aid against harassment as white victims. This takes self-reflection, honesty and shared determination to dismantle whiteness, and to stop positioning white women as the pure “saviors” for anti-harassment discourses: a lesson from #NotYourShield is that even spaces specified for minority participants can enable white supremacy to thrive. We also need to ask why corporate media sympathy is always more easily afforded to white victims, but not people of color. This includes challenging the linguistics behind how corporate media like CNN frames #GamerGate as being driven by a need to preserve traditionally male game spaces. While this is true, #GamerGate would not have been able to do a fraction of what they have without exploiting and minimizing the works of people of color. We must also examine why we are quicker to sympathize with, and believe in white victims of harassment mobs, instead of people of color who have done the foundational work in exposing the plans of harassers. As a visible Muslim woman of color who wants to make a difference, I also have to challenge myself on breaking away from placing whiteness as the universal norm.

These honest examinations require an intersectional understanding of racism and sexism. “Intersectionality” is beyond just a buzzword; social and political consequences are invoked as a result of the hierarchal language encouraged by the tech world. This hierarchal language is damaging to the point that whenever major tech companies and corporate media report on using the term “female gamers” in 2015, the specific terminology is inseparably embedded with whiteness. Colonization happens when white victims of harassment are positioned consistently as exclusive saviors in anti-harassment discourses and organizations, while people of color are dichotomized as obstacles or a mere afterthought.

Centering cultural whiteness and colonization will never stop the problem of online harassment. Whiteness should not be the overarching norm: stop positioning it to be. Overall, we need to apply intersectionality in practice. We must do better in honoring that Black feminists did foundational work in exposing the campaigns of harassers. Erasing the work of Black feminists, whether it be by normalizing the hierarchal language introduced from corporate media or by immediately making the next white feminist the default tech expert, makes us unjust.

A recommendation I propose for year 2016 is that whenever the mainstream media talks about online harassment, we need to be more critical of any terminology, discourse or even hashtag that appears catered to white women. Simultaneously, we need to challenge the myriad ways white feminists continue to monopolize both anti-harassment discourses and organizations, as well as how they cause digital spaces to be infested with white colonization.