The Internet can be rough. People feel strangely emboldened to publicly vomit up the nastiest of their thoughts without even blushing. If you participate in social media, you’re going to have to tolerate some measure of hate shoved into your face. That’s the deal you make if you want to engage with the big wide world. So, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the Interwebs. It’s the same for everyone.
Except that it’s not. And a recent experiment has demonstrated just how not it’s not.
In 2010, writer Jamie Nesbitt Golden decided to logon to her Twitter account and chime in on a controversy that was unfolding in the media at the time. The responses she received were not just hate-filled, but liberally sprinkled with death threats.
Cut to Spring 2014. She again had something she wanted to get off her chest about a scandal du jour, and took to Twitter.
The blowback she received got about as strong as being called a “lib-tard”. That was it. Thankfully, in the intervening years between those two tweets, the web grew up and users realized that for there to be meaningful dialogue, it is necessary to respect others’ opinions and leave room for opposing points of view.
Bwaahahahahahah… that’s a joke, of course. What actually happened is that she stopped being a black woman and instead became a white man.
Nesbitt Golden changed her Twitter avatar from a photo of herself to that of a caucasian male; everything else about her account remained the same. Her bio, her handle and her tweet topics all stayed as usual. Nonetheless, the white male avatar seemed to be an all access pass to a kinder, gentler, virtual world. Once she changed her avatar back to a selfie, the race and gender specific venom came back.
Interesting. But as we know, a sample set of one does not a scientific experiment make.
Enter Mikki Kendall, a friend of Nesbitt Golden’s and fellow editor of hoodfeminism. Nesbitt Golden’s avatar switcharoo inspired Kendall to encourage other folks– black, white, male, female– to change the gender and race of their avatar too. Thus was born the Race Swap Experiment.
Kendall is used to the nastiest the Twitterverse has to dish out. She’ll block the worst of the worst, and the next day they’ll be back trolling her under a new account. She’s had someone create over 40 different accounts just so when she blocks him he can come back and spew some more racist, sex-crime invective her way. Receiving threats of rape, stabbing and killing her family is par for the course for her, especially as someone who has written about high-tension topics like race and abortion.
She continued to write about these topics, but this time with her new avatar. The result was the same as Nesbitt Golden’s– as a white guy it became possible (or at least more possible) to have reasonable interactions with upset people without feeling the need for Kevlar. When she received a tweet from a super-troll she had had run-ins with in the past, not only was it was a relatively level-headed response, but she was able to engage him a proper, civil debate. There were angry people for certain, but never once was there mention of doing unspeakable things to her lady-parts.
What of the other people who engaged in the experiment? Kendall says that one of the men that switched avatar genders tweeted that he lasted about two hours. Two hours. He was shocked by the treatment he received.
Of course he was. This was a new world for him. And the degree to which the results of the race swap experience surprise you is most likely in direct proportion to the degree of privilege you experience and take for granted everyday. While it might not be ground-breaking information for some people, for those who have never lived on the receiving side of racialized or sexualized hostility, it’s a gobsmacker.
Nesbitt Golden still tweets as herself, but has kept a white dude avatar. Kendall says she was tempted to use things like flowers or cats but so far is still using a photo of herself. Whatever representation these women use, neither of them will stop writing about trigger-point topics. As Kendall said in a recent interview: “I refuse to be driven off the Internet because they want me to be driven off the Internet. You want me to be quiet? Just because you want that, now I’m not going to give it to you.”
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