So-called Toxic Twitter is made up of marginalized women of color for whom social media started out as yelling into the void and became a grassroots movement.
We are Toxic Twitter. The unnamed women frothing at the mouth in our underground internet lair who emerge only during the full moon of each news cycle to drink the blood of your favorite white feminists. Whenever you hear the refrain “Twitter is going to get you!” from the mouths of everyone from Oprah to CNN pundits, we are who they are referring to. We are bad for your career. We are bad for brands. We say good things, but watch out or we’ll swallow you whole.
It’s no mistake that established media demean what is in many cases the one platform to which marginalized women have access. You’ve been told to watch us but not engage: the very definition of surveillance. You cannot work in the media without being aware of the conversations we are having, lest you risk becoming obsolete and uninformed, yet you must carefully keep your distance. Our skills and thought are taken, sanitized and offered through different mouths, with different agendas. Our content is gold, but like all gold it must first be extorted, extracted or stolen from wherever it is found, then set free to circulate in other hands.
In a recent digital blackout, a group of feminists of color decided to pull back our labor and take a break from abuse, trolling, content mining and stalking. We found ourselves in a position where those who had the credentials to benefit from the work of poor women of color were centered over our safety to continue the work. Honorariums, flights, speaking engagements, brands, grants and cachet seemed only to flow upward from us as our content and thought were recycled without our bodies present. Surveillance without engagement meant there were no frameworks for inviting us to write essays or speak on official platforms about the issues affecting us most. We saw the use of our disembodied thought without advocacy of our interests.
We have been constantly months ahead of the news cycle, and seen reflections and outright copies of our work in spaces to which we are denied access. Non-profits and big names with large followings present at conferences and lead anti-violence campaigns using our digital framework—and in many cases, stolen work. What does this appropriation by professional activists of anti-violence work mean for poor women of color and their relationship to labor? How do we create anti-violence frameworks that acknowledge existing models of community support among the most vulnerable women?
“Toxic Twitter” is largely made up of Afro-indigenous, Black, and NDN women using technology to discuss our lives. The established media sees us as angry and impossible to please, waiting to rip people apart like a pack of Audre Lorde were-feminists. But we cannot look at the presence of marginalized women in digital spaces without considering our oppression. What some are truly afraid of are the layers that begin to unfold if we take a more careful look at how women are using Twitter to engage with a movement they previously had trouble connecting to because of disability, interpersonal violence that limited their movement, marginalized motherhood with little support, transphobia and class. When our voices come to the fore, mainstream organizations and anti-violence movements have to come to terms with the fact that we might have a different vision.
All too often, conventional approaches to justice prioritize the production of the abuser over the experience of the victim. One the first things said to me about my abuser when I faced some of my online abuse in the form of misgendering was, “But she does good work.” Every discussion of my abuse started not with the transphobic behavior of my abuser, but the work she does. We see a similar dynamic in people’s immediate defense of Bill Cosby’s and Woody Allen’s body of work before we are allowed to discuss the stories of their victims. But what happens when even anti-violence movements center labor and production rather than the safety of marginalized women of color? And, given the focus on “doing good work,” why is the labor and production of marginalized women of color so often erased or appropriated in the process?
Anti-violence organizations often truly believe they are doing good work, for the benefit of marginalized women. Depending on the organization, perhaps they are. But when these same women want to have a say in the direction anti-violence work moves in, professional activists have to stop, take stock, and have hard conversations. That is not delaying the movement or putting it behind–it’s the necessary work that we have seemed to miss in every generation when the non-profits dull their blades for grants and leave women unsupported. There is no “good of the movement” if women are not safe and valued. You cannot have a sustainable movement for ending violence without marginalized women at the grassroots level booted into its matrix and present in movement spaces. And when women express concerns about exploitation and abuse, it is counterproductive to label us ungrateful, lazy and lacking foresight.
Most of us started our social media accounts as women “yelling into the void,” as Twitter user @so_treu says. Her words express the experience most of us had. These spaces were created without us in mind. I doubt marginalized women pushing back against state-led anti-violence initiatives were high on the list of potential users in Twitter’s start-up design. For @so_treu, digital feminism is a space where she can engage with other black women overlooked in the academy, spread their work, and offer her own analysis on black artforms.
We have many different stories but what most of us had in common was this sensation of being isolated and yelling into space. Astonishingly, however, other women began to answer. Soon we noticed the voices of feminists of color everywhere online, shedding the constraints of misogynist respectability, adopting spandex as praxis, and detailing the experiences of marginalized and multifaceted womanhoods. Social media has lifted the barrier between consumers of media and media itself, transforming that relationship into one of active engagement. It has also lifted the barrier between women like us–displaced, disabled, trans, indigenous and black–and the parts of society that were never supposed to deal with us. The nightlights of kyriarchy were turned off and the dark figures of their imagination began to rise from the cellar they had stuffed all of us into. Suddenly a black trans woman denied access to any space you might enter is right here talking back to you with nuanced media critiques. A journalist can put up an article and within seconds readers are challenging the ethics of the reporting and the framing of subjects who can no longer be rendered passive.
There has been a shift from charismatic leaders as gatekeepers to our stories and when they matter, to taking our stories into our own hands using digital platforms. Those of us who never make it to a prized slot on MSNBC or have our names on a who’s-who list of young feminists can sign on to Twitter or use google chats to discuss the needs of our community, host teach-ins, work through experiences of sexual violence, build awareness around voices that would never be handed a megaphone at a rally, and bring in younger women to flex their voices and show them that feminism is also for them. As small collectives of women, we created what governments, charities, and corporations dream of: sustainable conversations in a digital space that happen daily and tie in global perspectives, and continuously grow a huge movement base.
The work we do covers a large swathe of global experiences: building understanding of antiblackness, analyzing racial hierarchies, explaining 500 years of colonialism, reimagining settler colonialism to understand Afro-indigeneity, centering trans women of color, and anything else we manage to fit into 140 characters. Marginalized women of color have built a base for a sustainable movement to end violence. How that base is mobilized, however, will depend on how we and women like us are supported. Will others go on labeling us as toxic, or will our experiences finally be centered? Most importantly, whatever happens, we have found each other: Black trans women, Afro Latinas, Afro-indigenous, and NDN women who listened to each other when no one else did, until everyone else did. Our conversations among ourselves, treated throughout colonial history as babble or gossip, turned out to be the best thing on the Internet.
We are constantly told to back away from our computers and do real work and form real community, but if you can’t respect us digitally what would make us feel safe enough to engage you in person? If you can’t respect us at this very basic level of 140 characters, what makes you think you will be able to beyond “the limits of the medium”? (And what does it mean when those who have structural advantage over us define a space we use with startling proficiency as “limited”?) We are asked to relinquish the physical protection we have in online spaces, show up to and engage in person with a movement that has ignored all our best efforts at talking back to it. We are called upon to physically traverse spaces that consider our safety petty infighting and an impediment to the real work of the movement.
The dominant conversations on grassroots digital feminism—and to be clear, that’s what “Toxic Twitter” is—ignore the fact that the last recourse of women who are pushed out of community on every angle is often the Internet. My inbox is flooded with messages from trans women of color rejected by their families, communities, and partners—if they even had access to those things in the first place. Not only do they face violence from the state, including the police, but also from the people attending any given rally. We fall through the cracks of the LGBTQ movement, anti-violence organizing, race coalitions and non-profits. Trans women of color write to me to express amazement I can simply take up space online, and be heard and recognized.
Grassroots digital feminism is often the only type of work that reaches those who are silenced at every step, and who rediscover their voices online, where no one can hold their mouths closed. Seeing other women do this work acts almost as permission to be alive and to engage the world we live in ourselves. Is it the only way? No. Does it have its limits? Yes. But why do we only focus on the limits of digital space, writing article and didn’t-think-piece after didn’t-think-piece, as opposed to focusing on the limits of and the interpersonal abuse that goes on in offline spaces?
Others take apart grassroots digital feminism like a HAM radio, finding all the possible reasons for it not to matter, while doing nothing to make other forms of engagement safe and accessible for women. And so we are left floating about in space. We cobble together stars, meteors, black holes, and Milky Ways only for our detractors to then want that too and become incensed that we dare to speak. Women like us are supposed to always be subjects. We are supposed to remain strange aliens who can never quite make a landing and thus freeze in the realm of the theories of those who really matter. We should remain silent on the operating tables in Roswell as they discover that we are different, not because we are toxic, but because we have two hearts instead of one.
The reality is that for most of us the work we do both online and off stems from our dedication to each other. The time we spend together online is devoted to navigating disabilities, helping each other survive sexual or transphobic assaults, confronting antiblack misogyny and violence against Indigenous women, defending Beyoncé, and even sharing horribly hilarious dating stories. This intense solidarity means we have been able to survive entire campaigns directed at silencing us. Just by living and speaking online, we fly in the face of a whole network of capitalist and patriarchal interests: A state that wants to police our labor and restrict our movement, the men who are supposed to be our placeholders, and the movements that center anybody but us while using our pain as legitimation.
In the end, this is a battle over narrative ground, over who gets to tell their own story and receive resources for it. Our feminism is intersectional not merely as cutting-edge praxis but as a result of the community we’ve built by standing by one another, listening daily to women who don’t matter anywhere else, calling out abuse no matter how it hurts our immediate interests, and galvanizing that community in the face of violence. We will never be put forward for prestigious positions, but as a result we are also free. Free black, Afro-indigenous and NDN women, however, are also enemies of the state, and so we complicate the politics of those whose anti-state rhetoric begins and ends on the pages of academic journals.
The number one priority of any movement dedicated to ending violence should be to bring marginalized grassroots women into all spaces, make them feel safe and prioritize their voices. How might the history of our movements have been different if we centered the Fannie Lou Hamers, Sylvia Riveras, Marsha P Johnsons, and Audre Lordes while they were alive instead of making them totems after their deaths?
We can temporarily disable our accounts but we can’t temporarily disable our lives. When it comes to marginalized women, we worship their graves instead of honoring their lives in the moment. Why can we only listen to these women once their mouths are closed? And what new ways of resistance might we find if we followed their voices in life? In the memory of these women and all those who were forgotten, we have closed our mouths for a brief moment in life to love one another in life. As this blackout ends and women begin to think more about how they navigate space, will we honor them in life or fight them every step of the way, only to place rings of flowers over their graves? As my mother and grandmother always told me when I was a brat, “Give me my flowers while I’m living.”