I almost didn’t write this post. As I sat down to write out my first draft I mentally ran through all the likely responses that I may get for daring to voice my opinion online – “stop playing the victim”, “this is so divisive”, “you people always make it about race”, etc, etc – and I asked myself, “is it really worth it?
“Do not feed the trolls” should be taped to the corner of my screen, but then again, it’s too easy to dismiss any online opposition as “trolling”. I’ve learned to not engage with the Twitter eggs and belligerent illiterate who find their way onto my screen, but it’s frustrating that sometimes the most vocal opponents to the voices of black women are people we would hope would be our allies: non-black women and black men.
The Internet is a wonderful thing, but as great as it is it really shows us where we’re at as a civilisation. I used to give the comments section on high profile websites the benefit of the doubt, believing the ignorance reflect a small minority of people with more spare time than common sense and empathy. However, with the unstoppable intellectual car crash that is Donald Trump’s American presidential campaign, and the seeping stain of UKIP in the UK, I was naive to think that the comment section is anything other than the true pulse of our nation.
At some point I stop reading comments under articles written by or featuring myself or my friends, but I read enough to know where we stand. I read enough to know that perhaps I don’t want to write anymore, or at least I should consider writing in a way that doesn’t invite direct attacks on my personhood, because how do you write truth and protect your sanity? Samantha Asumadu, the founder of Media Diversified, recently tweeted about outsourcing comment approval tasks. “Stuff like this is affecting my mental health”, she tweeted, linking to a tweet showing a comment disparaging Serena Williams. “Affecting her mental health, really?” Right now someone is sneering into their screen thinking this, so now is as good a time as any to talk about gaslighting.
Gaslighting is when a person, an abuser, attempts to get their intended victim to doubt their perception, memory, or even their sanity by repeatedly twisting, omitting, or denying facts, about an incident or event. It is a form of mental abuse. An example of gaslighting is when someone addresses unprovoked racist abuse and someone tells them that it isn’t racist at all. Another example is when Individual A is insulted by Individual B, but then B turns around and claims that A is actually the aggressor and should be punished. Another example is when someone speaks up around the realities of prejudice and discrimination and is accused of being racist and divisive.
So many times I’ve asked myself if I’m crazy when I see people repeatedly deny the reality of black women’s experiences, as if they have some kind of deeper insight into our lives than we do. No wonder many of us find safe spaces, in real life or online, a valuable retreat when we are brow-beaten by the ignorance of the world. But then again, according to a white man, we do not need them and they should not exist. All of a sudden I’m feeling really, really tired. So I decide to retreat to the safe space of WhatsApp.
“I do often ask myself why I bother doing a lot of what I do to be brutal and honest with you,” my friend Siana Bangura replies to my message, “but I do it anyway because I have to try.” Siana does a lot: she’s a writer, poet, runs a black feminist platform as well as currently producing a film about police brutality in the UK. Does backlash make her think twice about what she puts out there? “Nah, it doesn’t. I really have limited f–ks left to give. I pretty much say whatever I want to say, no filter – and I try to not look over comments much for my sanity.”
“When white people are uncomfortable, they lash out,” my other friend, Tobi Oredein, tells me in another message. Tobi is the founder and editor of Black Ballad, a website that serves as a platform for black and mixed-race women in the UK to write about the world as they experience it. Tobi was telling me about the time Black Ballad published an investigative piece about higher education and blackness. “The backlash from ‘white Twitter’ was shocking. People branded [both] the site and the piece as race-baiting and [said] that we were trying to play [the] victim.”
It’s the last thing that Tobi says to me that sticks fast: “We do not have the room to speak about genuine inequalities.” When something is put out there and black women respond with critique, we are accused of playing “identity politics” and trying to stifle “free speech”. When a black woman writes about her experiences, she is told she is “playing the victim”, or is being “racist” or “divisive”. Apparently “free speech” is the preserve of those who criticise and undermine us, but it never extends to us as individuals. The responses can be coarse or creative, but ultimately they say the same thing: “Shut up, you are not allowed to speak on this.” Well, we never have and never will ask for your permission.
The democratic nature of the Internet means we can make our own rules for the small corners of the web that we inhabit. “I don’t give [trolls] a platform under my YouTube videos anymore,” Siana tells me. “If you’ve got some s–t to say, come try me over on Twitter in real time. What’s great is that the comments don’t just linger in a static environment, you know? They eventually kind of disappear.” Tobi admits to me that the response to the higher education piece was the first time that she wondered if what she was doing was worth it, but it was also the only time. A cursory glance at Black Ballad will show that she and her team of writers are boldly progressing with her vision.
Black women are more vocal than ever. We no longer bat an eyelid at the “angry black woman” cliche that haunted our mothers, or the “aggressive” label that was tacked onto any black schoolgirl who was insolent enough to do anything but sit silently. We say what we want, and we won’t suffer fools gladly, and at some point the rest of the world will learn to deal with that.