Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Rejecting the notion of "Black People Twitter"

For more than a year now, folks have been fascinated by "Black People Twitter," or rather the conversations, memes and hashtags that result from the African Americans who make up 25 percent of all Twitter users. Observing black Twitterati has become a popular form of cultural tourism for mainstream media and trend watchers eager to gain insight into African American culture and ascribe deeper meaning to 140-character tweets. And today at The Root, writer Patrice Williams worries about what Black People Twitter will teach the majority about African American culture:
With African Americans disproportionately represented in the Twitter game, trending topics often originate with and are perpetuated by black folks. According to Edison Research, "many of the 'trending topics' on Twitter on a typical day are reflective of African-American culture, memes and topics." Though many trending topics are about specific people, events or silliness like #liesmentell, #itsnotcheating, etc., the mood has recently shifted into far more ignorant territory. Why is this how we choose to wield our power on Twitter? Read more...
What's this "we" business? In a post in 2009 called "Are you a credit to your race?" I wrote:
I have been thinking about what it means to represent the black race and how black people act as ambassadors to the mainstream world. There is this tendency, from which I am not immune, to feel embarrassed by and to make excuses for black folks who behave badly, or rather, act in a way contrary to a certain set of values and accepted norms. There is a real reason for this compulsion: Black people and other people of color are often unfairly judged as group by the mainstream. In other words, the actions of one equal the actions of all. And so, many of us, learn from the time we are children to mind ourselves around white folks--to not do anything that brings discredit to black people and, ideally, to live life with the goal of uplifting the race through our actions. Admittedly, this idea of being a proxy for the entire race has been tied to excellence and achivement--both wonderful things. But, ultimately, this way of thinking is a tyranny and a perpetuation of race bias. Read more...
Watching black folks on Twitter tells no more about African American culture than watching the forums at Salon or Gawker reveals about white culture. Sure, among certain Twitter groups, black folks relax and use vernacular and call on experiences that are unique to us. But attempting to assign deep cultural meaning to trending topics like #hoodhoe is a reflection of racial bias. We do ourselves no favor by buying into the thinking that topics like this and #itaintrape reveal something particularly significant about black people. Don't get me wrong, these memes are misogynist. But anyone who has spent more than two seconds online knows that misogyny and sexism are everywhere--a reflection of American...no...world culture, not that of any particular race. Consider the deeply sexist conversation surrounding the Julian Assange sexual assault accusations and the trolling on the #mooreandme hashtag. These were hardly driven by black Twitterati.

Williams notes that "Writer Choire Sicha, who is white, even admitted on the Awl to being obsessed with what he termed 'Black People Twitter' because of our 'hilarious' trending topics." Sicha's exoticizing makes me uncomfortable, but Williams ponders "if Sicha, along with millions of other white people on Twitter, finds himself amazed that this is how we choose to use our power on the social networking site."

If some white people are amazed at what black folks do on Twitter, it is a sign of their own ignorance and prejudice. Williams laments that on the anniversary of the disaster in Haiti, the #haiti hashtag peaked at number 76 on the Twitter trend list, far below a slew of vulgar and sexist tags. But are black people solely to blame for that? Were all the white people on Twitter discussing Haitian relief efforts? Why should black people be more or less ashamed of the idiots among us than people of the majority culture? Why should silly and profane Tweets written by black folks hold more weight than the equally silly and profane Tweets written by everybody else?

I, for one, refuse to be burdened with the actions of @lilduval, some dude I've never heard of who created the  #itaintrape meme, nor those of @slimthugga, who waxed yesterday about sleeping with white women in honor of MLK Day. More from my 2009 post:
Audre Lorde said, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."
Yes. This. This is another problem with the notion of being "a credit to your race." Is it not ultimately better to be a credit to your family, your friends, your self? It that not, at least in part, the definition of freedom? And isn't it freedom that our ancestors fought for?
This "credit to your race" business is a notion concocted by an oppressive mainstream. What good do we do by yielding to it and stifling the personal freedom of black people?
There is no Black People Twitter--not in the way people seem to think. No such thing as White People Twitter either. There are Twitter communities--pockets of people held together by their interests, cultures, location and, yeah, sometimes race, but I think rarely race exclusively. Attempts to make judgments about the black online community based on Twitter trends is wrong-headed. And wishing black Twitterers would "act right in front of the white folks" is to uphold the unequal standards that are the mark of a race biased society.


Kjen said...

I think the urge to wonder about who's a credit stems from feeling powerless. I think since you feel you can't change the actions of your attacker, people tend to start to blame themselves. I've heard this noted many times about the way women police themselves in a sexist society and I think the same premise applies here.

Also the question of who is a credit to the race is also a subtle/not so subtle attempt to set yourself apart from "those people." Simply asking the question can set you apart as someone who is in the know and if you are that aware of society's rules than you of course can't be acting like an idiot like those people. Not at the moment at least.

But what is galling is that even "knowing" what I know, I sometimes feel myself thinking "if only black people wouldn't ______, then white people wouldn't _____."

How to completely break the chains in my own mind is proving stubbornly baffling to me.

navelgazingbajan said...

It seems like these people who are all agog over a "Black Twitter" are more invested in some sort of twitter race performance than any real understanding of how Black people use twitter. If they were they would see that Black people on twitter are just as diverse a group as any other in terms of how and why they use twitter.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

I can't speak prescriptively on why someone would want to be a "credit to their race" or whether or not this is wise, foolish, noble or counterproductive. I can say this is not a burden regularly levied against whites. I can also say - as an avid Twitterite - there are plenty, PLENTY of whites saying hateful, sexist, ignorant, harmful, homophobic, racist, etc. etc. stuff on Twitter.

I love that Audre Lorde quote!

Thank you for your post!


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