The internet is unsafe. It's full of predators, bigots, and assholes, just waiting to pounce on women with bold opinions. The internet is a dumpster for trash people — common knowledge — but being on the receiving end of said vitriol has shown me how dangerous the internet really is for women, and more specifically, Black women.
The sudden passing of boxing and civil rights titan, Muhammad Ali, left me — and so many others — stunned. A subsequent rush to paint the Greatest of All Time with a universal stroke startled me even more. TIME Magazine suddenly wanted to bestow the universal hero title on an unapologetically Black man who they once refused to refer to by his chosen name.
So, as is common for me, I decided to tweet about Ali's love for Black folks and our mutual love for him. I even told a quick Twitter story about the time I met the champ, and how he focused in on me, my brother, and my mother in a crowded airport.
Soon, those tweets — sent in a haste while shoe shopping in Philadelphia — were viral.
Someone packaged them for Facebook, and an influx of tagged posts and friend requests followed.
That's also when the bigoted vitriol started.
Facebook and Twitter users called me idiotic, hurled slurs at me, and even attempted to hack my Twitter account.
The attacks continued for hours—which is when I made a startling realization: All of these trolls were attempting to silence me.
Their hatred, crouched in tales about American exceptionalism and colorblindness, is designed to shut me up, shutter me, force me to stop speaking publicly about racism, sexism, homophobia, and all of the ways Black women are crushingly oppressed. Their cruelty, reflected in their digs at me rather than an engagement with what I said, is supposed to quiet me.
The trolls have failed at that, but have succeeded in making me recognize that by being a vocal Black woman on the internet, I am constantly performing vulnerability. At any given time, my opinions can lead to harm — as so many prejudiced responders reminded me, which is a problem in itself, but a bigger one when it's my job.
I am on the internet because I work in digital media.
As Revelist's senior news and identity editor, tapping into Twitter and other digital communities is essential to doing my job effectively. Being met with hate isn't the cost of doing business, as some male journalists, like Jim Pagels seems to believe. In an article for Slate, Pagels encouraged journalists to ignore death threats because they're toothless.
He later tweeted: "When there's no precedent for physical harm, it's only baseless fear mongering."
Yet, sending death threats — and hacking into Twitter accounts — isn't baseless. It's a threat that in itself silences women from contributing to public discourse.
Unfortunately, for Black women, this is a lingering danger.
Amanda Hess, a David Carr fellow at The New York Times, wrote about the way women are harmed on the internet in a prolific piece for Pacific Standard. She captured the emotional toll navigating hatred has on women.
"But no matter how hard we attempt to ignore it, this type of gendered harassment — and the sheer volume of it — has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet," Hess wrote. "Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages."
For Black women though it's even more prevalent, primarily because we're impacted by both racism and sexism. AlterNet did a deep-dive into how Black women are specifically harmed by internet trolls and harassers. Historian Tanisha C. Ford said Black Feminists, like me, are harassed because they're discussing uncomfortable topics, like white supremacy and sexism.
"Black feminists have always been the bold voices to speak truth to power," she told Alternet. "So when we talk about issues of intimate partner violence, critiques of violence perpetrated by the state, those are the things that attack and seek to dismantle systems of patriarchy, systems of white supremacy, and these are issues that a lot of Americans, even those in the black community, don’t want to have to confront because it makes them culpable in those systems. It's much easier for them to condemn and silence the voices of black women as an attempt to not address those issues."
Silencing me keeps trolls from reconciling with how they're complicit in a system that discriminates against marginalized folks. Too bad it didn't work — and never will.
It is time, however, for Twitter and Facebook to go beyond the reporting tools they offer — and start protecting harassed women from those intent on causing harm. In the meantime, I'll keep talking, tweeting, and writing about the issues I'm most passionate about.