Three Thoughts on Twitter, Activism, and Emotional Exhaustion


KDC: I have avoided the topic of hashtag activism on TLF for a long time for … reasons. Make no mistake, I am very much supportive of the intent and the action behind #yesallwomen, #notyourasiansidekick #blackpoweryellowperil, #fasttailedgirls, and the “grandmother” of them all #solidarityisforwhitewomen. By the time #yesallwomen came about, I will admit to a level of outrage fatigue. And honestly, it’s not even really outrage fatigue, but more of the fatigue of being a woman of color and fighting the multiple battles of racism and sexism everyday, in small ways, both offline and off, and just wanting a goddamn break from it all for a little bit when I go online, and not have to be reminded that every day is a snowball of tiny stupid battles to prove I am a human being.

I get tired of having to think about walking into a meeting room and immediately having to justify my existence because I’m assumed to be the substandard minority hire. Or the fact that even talking about this publicly online, in my line of work, may be costing me MORE work because no one wants to hire a “troublemaker”. Or the fact that I was harassed by grown men when I was as young as eight years old which means I have DECADES of sexual harassment on my psyche. Or when I get into to fights with well-meaning so-called allies that seem to want a special pat on the back for doing what they SHOULD be doing, treating women and people of color and gays and lesbians and trans people and disabled people as human beings. I do get weary about talking about it because people ASK ME ABOUT THIS SHIT EVERY DAY. EVERY DAY. For decades. My black lady feels are so valuable. Supposedly.

But that’s the thing, I guess. There is no break from this. This is life. Long after the race and gender think pieces on Salon and Daily Dot stop bringing in the pageviews, I’m still gonna be a black woman dealing with this shit everyday. We will all still be here, fighting this fight. At work, at home, on the street, online. Like our mothers, and grandmothers. Like our daughters, and granddaughters.

But let me be perfectly clear: the hashtag movements that have emerged from this aren’t some curious internet trend like fucking LOLcats, it’s people’s lives and voices – women’s lives and voices – being amplified on a platform where they just might get listened to. At least for a moment. I am happy for that. So happy and so grateful. This is what social media can do at its best. But I am also so tired, because I see the long view in this. I know that once the topic of our valuable oppressed person’s tears aren’t raking in the pageviews for these online publishers, we won’t be asked back to talk about anything else. (And let’s not ignore the fact that it took #yesallwomen to get the internet masses to consider so-called hashtag activism as something more than “divisive,” “bullying” women of color complaining online.)

Hashtag activism is a tool, a process, not an outcome, and many of those who engage in this dialogue, i believe, are quite aware of that fact. Mostly because many of those who engage in it are already fighting the daily fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. everyday offline. There’s no respite from it, really, and no need to justify what we share of our lives on Twitter or anywhere else online.

I avoided writing about this, not because I don’t care, but because I care too damn much, and I am too damn tired. I fear that even writing this will somehow be used against me, once again reduced to my black lady feels, defined by my black lady pain, so some anonymous dudes online can have something to bitch about for a few seconds.

I won’t be speaking of this topic again here.

KB: I’m obviously not coming at these hashtags from quite the same place as everyone else, since I only have to contend with one of the disadvantages associated therewith (the female part), but the #yesallwomen movement in particular has made me simultaneously proud, depressed, and annoyed. Certainly, there’s the backlash – #notallmen – which makes me irate, but there’s also #allmenshoud, which is problematic in its own right, although less so. I think I’m less impacted by many of the others – #notyourasiansidekick, #blackpoweryellowperil, #fasttailedgirls, and #solidarityisforwhitewomen – not only because I’m a white woman (because that is part of it), but because in the circles I follow, there have been so many MORE #yesallwomen tweets and posts and what have yous.

This does, I think, a couple of things. First, it points out why we have the other hashtag movements to begin with. I’ve read several #yesallwomen posts by WOC, and they are telling similar stories to those written by white women. This particular hashtag movement is meant to be all-encompassing, representative of just over half the planet who are being told that they are inherently lesser for not having a penis between their legs.

But the stories of WOC are similar. Similar. Not the same. It’s important to recognize the similarities, but it is also important for white women particularly to recognize the differences. Our harassment is coded in terms of gender, but ONLY in terms of gender. We experience degradation and objectification, but not also categorization based on racial and ethnic stereotypes. To be a woman is already to be second class, but to be a white woman is to be second, rather than third, fourth, fifth, etc.

White women especially – and with #yesallwomen – like to talk about (straight) white male privilege. We don’t often admit that we, too, are speaking, writing, and tweeting from a position of relative privilege and that there are plenty of women (more than there are white women, certainly, on a global scale) who experience oppression on multiple levels. And this creates a problem for a lot of white women that we all need to get the hell over (my students especially, sometimes): we don’t know how to be seen as both privileged and oppressed, both victim and victimizers. So we create this weird sense of paternalistic solidarity that I often struggle to find my way around – I know I have life pretty damn good and that my woes about being called “little lady” in the American South are pretty much nothing in comparison to what a lot of women, and woc in particular, experience on a daily basis.

But I also really fucking hate being called “little lady.” (And a whole host of other things, many of which can be distilled into the fact that it is socially acceptable, even polite, to call a woman “little lady.”) I want to embrace the feminist outrage, to participate in the yelling and flag-waving. But sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s a lot more yelling and flag-waving that needs to happen for things that have no impact on me – and that those things are just as if not more important than the things I’m already yelling about.

Which brings me back to #yesallwomen. Justifiable anger feels good, and people like to jump on board the bullet train of moral outrage. And when that train happens to consist of nice, first-world things like blog posts and tweets, it’s very easy to jump on the train. It’s not so easy to get off when the train arrives at its inevitable destination.

Now I think – like Keidra – that ultimately the hashtag movements are doing a lot of good. I think there are a lot of people out there who learned that they “aren’t alone,” or that the way they were thinking about the world was harmful to others (and want to reform), or realize just how pervasive and insidious things like rape culture, racism and racial profiling, trans- and homophobia, and general misogyny really are. I think that if tweets and blog posts can bring even one or two people to the realization that something needs to change, then they are all worth it.

But if we really mean what we’re tweeting, then it can’t just end at the glow of a computer screen with a satisfied nod of vindication. We can’t just say “me, too” and leave it at that, somehow knowing that we’ve created a sisterhood of suffering. I’m not patient Griselda and I have no interest in waiting nicely for a nice prince to come and remove me from my Tower of Misogyny so that I can teach my daughter (no, I don’t have one) to emulate my Steadfastness and Purity. (Sorry about the small medieval rant there.)

We need to embody the intent behind these tags, to take them out of the realm of the virtual and into the realm of the physical and immediate. I try to show my students where and how these things appear in their lives every day in ads, in movies, in tv, and in the classroom when their teachers tell the women to not wear short skirts and tight tops because it might distract the male students. It appears when they dismiss me as being “feminine” or as not being as hard on them as their male professors (which they quickly realize was in error when they get their first papers back). I try to live the idea that I do not have to be constrained by gender normative behavior, perhaps to excess, since my husband has been known to complain that I would rather break my leg jumping off something than accept his help (I might, too).

But Keidra is right, too, that this is exhausting. It’s exhausting being hit on every time I go to the grocery store after dark. It’s exhausting having to work harder to prove that I’m good at my job (although my department is highly supportive, so it’s mostly at conferences and in publications). It’s also exhausting being pigeonholed as “doing gender,” rather than as someone who engages in cultural criticism. Someone the other day expressed surprise that I didn’t write about gender in Shakespeare, because I “do gender stuff.” Yes, I do. But I also do other things, like sociopolitical contextual criticism of political theory in early modern history plays.

Mostly, though, I think it’s exhausting because while people might be tweeting, they aren’t doing. The men who write #notallmen are defensive, but they aren’t stopping the sexism on the street – they’re congratulating themselves on not BEING overtly sexist. And for those who are standing up against misogyny and racism and homophobia… they don’t need a hashtag.

Maybe part of why I’m writing this is because I still do. Because I’m getting sick of having to live it, and for once I just want to let someone else do the work. Because I’m already so tired from being a white woman that I can’t imagine doing twice or three times the work. The hashtag is easy. It’s also better than nothing. So if you can’t do anything else – because you physically or mentally cannot or simply because you choose not – then hashtag it up. But if you can – and I say this to myself, as well – then get off your ass and make it so that the hashtags stop being necessary.

RL: I’m not really “on” Twitter, so I don’t have the same “watching it happen”-ness of the two of you seeing hashtag activism happen live. I did read some of the responses to all of these hashtags, but they made me so … tired.

After #fasttailedgirls and a certain xojane piece that was eerie in how much it reflected my own similar experiences — just switch out the ID pic — I wanted to write something about how everyone (teens) knew about the actions of a CERTAIN FAMOUS PERSON at the time, but how no one would have been believed. He was walked in the door by an authority figure, so what power did any kid have? And even with that, there was an overwhelming response from the white irony crowd of blase incredulity. We all know about once a straight white educated man starts talking about something it matters — though even here, when someone did years ago, it was ignored too. So why didn’t I say something right then when the hashtag took off? Because those that were listened to the least regarding this issue — black women and girls — were speaking up and it was my role to listen to them.

So the issue for me with hashtag activism is about who is speaking and who is listening. I think it can be very, very powerful for those who have never spoken up and want to add their voices to the chorus of “yes, this really happened and happens and here is my story”. But the point of these hashtags isn’t just that — it is also to have others without these experiences listen, and often, listening is not a skill sharpened by years of use by those who are listening. And so there are the backlash tweets, the “you are just too sensitive” tweets, the “this is your story, but there is no overall evidence of a society that supports racism or sexism or both” tweets.

So those that participate open themselves up to being attacked for sharing their lived experiences, and while that can be brave, why does this continually need to be brave? People who share their lives with these hashtags are already living their lives, and now when they share, they are questioned — and told by others “this is just you, not a trend, not something that happens to a group as a whole.” And stepping up to talk yet being smooshed down by others, happens all the time for so many, so does hactkivism help, or continue existing patterns?

I’m not sure if hacktivism can actually cause change to happen. I still think 140 characters allows those that want to deny others lived experiences, those that want to ask for “evidence” to easily stay within their bubbles and not open their eyes. Oddly enough, from the other side, I think it will cause people staring back at privilege to call it out more — hopefully away from Twitter — regardless of whether it is polite or angry.

But I hope that for those who consider themselves to be allies, to not continue to be on a cookie quest. One doesn’t need to be a to see when people in that group are discriminated against, but one does need to open their eyes to it — and have the strength to step up and call that !@#$ out.

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