Editor’s Note: Michelle Goldberg’s cover story on the explosive interaction between feminist activism and Twitter kicked up a roiling debate about how social media can empower grassroots feminists and shake up the established feminist agenda—while keeping the movement focused and effective in the fight for gender equality. Since that piece appeared, the social media platform has played host to ever more outbreaks of organizing, consciousness-raising, and outrage. Many women told Goldberg that Twitter facilitates an ideological policing that borders on bullying and makes candid conversation impossible. And yet Twitter campaigns have sparked public outcry as ordinary women use it to reach wide audiences with their stories of abortion, sexual assault, racial stereotyping, and more. How can feminists grapple with the limitations inherent in the medium, while exploiting its potential to build support for critical fights? We invited four women—Andrea Smith, Mariame Kaba, Lori Adelman and Roxane Gay—to respond to the piece, and reflect on the role Twitter will and should play as the feminist movement continues to grow.
Each of us has been engaged in feminist, anti-racist, anti-heterosexist organizing for over twenty years, and we do not recall a time when our organizing has not been fraught. Before the advent of social media, instead of 140-character tweets, we and our comrades wrote “open letters to (some) white feminists” who were engaged in the same exclusionary, hostile and generally oppressive behaviors as today. Some of these include the appropriation of feminists of color theories without attribution, intentionally excluding marginalized feminists of color from public forums (such as publications, conferences, etc), tokenizing the inclusion of feminists of color in feminist venues, and derailing valid critiques through personal attacks. Organizing has always entailed political and ideological contestation.
What has changed through the development of social media is the immediacy of the pushback and its more democratic nature. Social media offers the opportunity to expand our platforms to discuss ideas that can encompass thousands of individuals rather than the small and sometimes insular groups of people with whom we work. Social media also offers opportunities for some who do not have access to traditional publishing venues nor the resources to travel to share ideas beyond their geographic locales.
As such, we are deeply suspicious of narratives that claim that there were “good old days” when things were much simpler and nicer. For the marginalized, the “good old days” are a lie. The world was and is currently structured by white supremacy, settler colonialism, heterosexism and patriarchy. So, the complaint that social media has become “toxic” and is therefore no longer a “safe space” strikes us as ahistorical and strange. How can social media exist independently of the dynamics and forces of oppression that structure the world at large? The answer is simple: it does not and cannot. Feminists of color know that when we are not on “toxic Twitter,” there is no other place we can go where we won’t have to deal with the intersecting forces of racism, sexism and capitalism. There is no safe space from oppression anywhere. Thus, calls for “safe spaces” from toxicity are ultimately attempts to reinforce the status quo by those who have the privilege to avoid individuals that trouble and challenge them. Rather than build movements to end all structures of oppression that cause societal toxicity (such as ending mass incarceration, gender violence and economic exploitation) we are invited to create artificial “safe” havens that amount to exclusive clubs. As Christina Hanhardt notes in her germinal book, Safe Space, these calls for safe space end up becoming both protectionist and carceral moves to excise those generally racialized populations that pollute the safe spaces of those who are more privileged. She states: “Safety is commonly imaged as a condition of no challenge or stakes, a state of being that might be best described as protectionist.”