The first time I was trolled was back in 2010. After watching Andrew Breitbart destroy Shirley Sherrod’s career, I fired off an angry tweet and he retweeted it, inviting thousands of his followers to defend his honor.
And defend they did. I was a number of “dumb black bitches” and “stupid ni**er bitches,” with a few “dumb c**ts” thrown in for good measure. My mentions were a crime scene for hours.
Last week, I decided to tweet Raffi Williams, he of the manufactured Ebony Magazine scandal. I fully admit to camping out in his mentions like Tisha Campbell did Eddie Murphy in “Boomerang.” But this time, the trolling I received was markedly different. Save for a few homophobic tweets, the worst insult I received was “libtard.” But this time, they thought they were engaging a white hipster.
Being a white dude on Twitter has its advantages.
To be clear, this whole thing started as a joke. Or a bet, really. Last fall, one of my Twitter followers dared me to change my avatar and assume the personality of a DudeBro for a week. It seemed easy enough. I’d spent my formative years studying white culture, and considered myself an expert on all of The Things White People Like™, like yoga, collie shepherds, and Stephen Colbert. So I hit Google, searched for a random picture of a random white guy, and threw it up on my profile. I left my name and bio unchanged.
Sure enough, people (most of them, white dudes) engaged me differently. The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped off considerably, and discussions on race and gender were less volatile. I had suddenly become reasonable and level-headed. My racial identity no longer clouded my ability to speak thoughtfully, and in good faith. It was like I was a new person.
Once I went back to Black, it was back to business as usual.
What I look like when I’m not on Twitter.
Of course, the online harassment of women isn’t new, especially for women of color. Journalist Joshunda Sanders chronicled the abuseprominent WOC academics and activists endure once they speak out on topics involving race and gender. Women like Salon’s Britney Cooper and University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler have received their fair share of death threats, racist attacks, and — in the case of Butler’s colleague Salamishah Tillet — 80 magazine subscriptions made in her name.
Recently, activist Suey Park and Ebony Magazine’s Jamilah Lemieuxbecame targets of two separate hate campaigns; the former over her #CancelColbert protest and the latter for misidentifying Raffi Williams, a prominent black republican. Neither woman was prepared for the racial animus that flooded their Twitter mentions or inboxes. Even GOP chairman and paragon of racial tolerance Reince Priebus got into the act, calling for Lemieux’s employer to apologize. But the mea culpa didn’t end the harassment.
Earlier this week, a few high-profile WOC decided to swap Twitter avatars with a few popular white tweeters, some bloggers and activists themselves. Their results were much like mine. They reported a drop in random trolling, and a difference in engagement.
The white folks who participated reported a spike in racial insults and random trolling. Even my friends, who had implored me to put my face and name back in my profile, had to admit that life was easier once they donned the white cloak of invisibility. Some already regret switching back.
My decision has made some a little uncomfortable. I’ve been accused of disrespecting the experiences of trans folk, or putting on “whiteface” (sorry, no such thing.). That was never my intent. If anything, this began as a satirical attempt at highlighting the different experience one has tweeting while white. Of course, I’m not saying that everything is rainbows and puppies, but contrary to what many thought once the Internet went pop, it hasn’t changed our perception of race. Women of color are still seen as angry, hostile interlopers whenever we say something someone doesn’t like. And sometimes, the blowback gets to be a bit much.
I still tweet as myself, just with a Fed-Up Hipster avatar. Thankfully, trolls never bother reading my bio for context.
For me, it’s a matter of safety and sanity. When I signed up for Twitter six years ago, I had no intention of using it beyond keeping up with family and friends. And then people I didn’t know started following me. (I still have no idea why.) But as my Twitter popularity grew, so did the trolls. And whenever I spoke up, even when it was in self-defense, my race and gender were the first points of attack. There are only so many racialized insults one can take before they start looking up IP addresses.
I wish I were more optimistic about the future of social media engagement. I wish I didn’t have to consider the repercussions of speaking out, even when it’s the right thing to do. I wish I didn’t have to worry about strangersdoxing me for having a difference of opinion. But the cost can be too great, and I’ve witnessed what has happened to the lives of close friends who dared to open their mouths. I’ve seen careers derailed and reputations irrevocably damaged.
If throwing a white guy in my user photo saves me from that kind of grief, I’m going to be the whitest white who ever whited.