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How colourism and misogynoir affected a generation of dark-skinned black women on and off the timeline

After a slew of violent tweets resurfaced this week, Black British Twitter is having a very public reckoning. Dark-skinned black women need to be at the forefront of the conversation.

01 May 2020

Trigger warning: mentions of rape, physical and sexual assault,  domestic abuse, violent misogynoir, colourism and anti-blackness

This is painful to talk about and difficult to write. It feels important to acknowledge that. Reliving the traumatic experiences of violence directed at black women, and dark-skinned black women in particular, doesn’t get easier, no matter how much time has passed.

Over the last few days, an abundance of tweets containing targeted abuse at black women resurfaced onto the timeline. While a part of me can’t believe we’re back here, on the other hand, I completely understand how the road has ended up winding back in on itself; back to following threads and linking sub-tweets together to form a coherent narrative of what was going on and who we were talking about – this time – while wading through the loudness of horrific misogynoir, colourism and anti-Somali statements and the deafening silence of those who were choosing to ignore them.

Sadly, most black women will be able to map moments of misogynoir and colourism at different periods in our lives. They may be some of our earliest memories. For those of us who looked to Twitter as a new form of escapism from these moments, we quickly learnt that this space wasn’t for us.

Growing up with misogynoir on Twitter

Being born in the boom of the internet era, the fast evolution of social media is something my generation has had time to closely study. From the personalisation of our MySpace profiles and the literary phenomenon of Keisha Da Sket on Bebo, through to the international conversations on Tumblr and blending of close friends and complete strangers on Facebook, social media became a vortex of self-identity. It was the soil we used to develop our tastes and form our opinions, completely transforming a generation of young people trying to find our way in the world. All of a sudden, it was at our fingertips, ready to be explored – for better or worse.

My earliest memories of Twitter contain flashbacks of misogynoiristic and colourist tweets that would leave me feeling like a hostage in my own skin. Every other tweet would be heavily lined with misogynistic, homophobic, racist, xenophobic and ableist content. Here, trawling through the barrage of trash 2009 – 2012 Twitter left behind, is where I meet my 13-year-old self again, perplexed within an era notoriously known for being ruthlessly brutal and violent.

Leonie, 23, who grew up in Barking, tells me that initially, going on Twitter was a “massive form of escapism”. She would use it to connect with people with whom she shared interests. But her experiences on the site quickly became punctuated with vile tweets about black women.

“I remember seeing people ‘joke’ about having sex with a dark-skinned black woman and attaching a picture of this ugly, purple hedgehog saying this is what black vaginas look like. That one stuck with me,” Leonie says, “I’ve always been comfortable in my skin but I could see the way these things would affect my friends.”

“My earliest memories of Twitter contain flashbacks of misogynoiristic and colourist tweets that would leave me feeling like a hostage in my own skin”

The dehumanisation and animalisation of black women’s bodies gave room for adolescent black girls to question the normality of our features. Noting that these comments were coming from black boys and men feels uncomfortable, but the swelling heap of abuse black girls and women suffered is an uncomfortable fact we have to sit with. 

I remember that tweet about black women’s vaginas. I remember laughing at it. I didn’t find it funny. It was probably the first time I considered whether something was wrong with my body. I was learning a lot about myself – things I hated, things I wanted to change, things I had internalised from the online and offline spaces. Part of me hoped laughing at myself would uphold the masked appearance of being unphased by it all, eliminating me from being on the receiving end of an onset of online violence. Instead, I projected my internalised anti-blackness, hurting myself, and probably other black girls like me, in the process.

Alongside black boys and men, black girls and women became complicit in a culture of anti-black and colourist rhetoric. In short, black communities became agents of perpetuating harmful white supremacist ideologies against ourselves online. This internalised anti-blackness would hold storage in my body like a virus for the next decade to come, infecting my self-esteem and leading to the progression of anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia. I wouldn’t be the only one.

Yinks, 26, from Ireland, tells me that Twitter also triggered her first insecurities over her skin tone.  “My first recollection of an anti-black tweet and the one that has stuck by me the longest was when someone tweeted an image of gorillas with a caption similar to ‘Dark Skin Black Girls’,” she says. “Up until this point, my skin tone had never really bothered me. The thought of being defined by my shade of blackness hadn’t occurred to me. I remember so many people retweeting that gorilla picture and co-signing it. For the first time, I knew what it felt to be uncomfortable in my skin.”

Desirability politics aren’t the be-all and end-all of the issues associated with colourism, and the tweets didn’t stop there. Black people being compared to animals is a historical anti-black pseudo-theory honed by white supremacists and regurgitated by racist trolls both online and offline. “Monkey racism” in particular has a specific link to eugenics and anti-blackness. 

Bunmi Mojekwu wrote an honest and thoughtful thread of her experiences of online violence during her time playing Mercy In EastEnders, noting that she had black people liken her to apes or King Kong. “I wonder if anyone really thinks, ‘if I say this, it could actually cause the subject of my “banter” to think less of themselves and form deep insecurities all in the name of getting a laugh’,” she stated.

Severely violent posts stating dark-skinned black women are “easy” to domestically abuse, and dark-skinned black women should be raped, also make up a large section of tweets directed at black women. It became a vicious game on the timeline, with people competing for who could harm us the most.

Xenophobic tweets towards Somali communities were also a part of the mix, further ostracising Somali communities from the holdall of “blackness”. Though these anti-black, xenophobic and misogynoiristic statements thrived in the online world, they weren’t completely detached from the offline space.

The online vs. the offline

The social media space has shifted from a personal diary to a network where businesses are built and influencer culture flourishes.  And yet, we seem to compartmentalise the online and offline space to create a false world where online accounts have no affiliation with the people behind the screen. The intense vacuum of social media communities often gives the illusion of a singular voice, and though this line of thinking has often created a chasm between the online and offline space, experiences of violent colourism, misogynoir and anti-blackness belong as much to the school playground as they do the timeline.

Environmental, physical, emotional and mental developments during this time create the capacities children carry into adulthood. Research shows that the impact of bullying, both online and offline, can last for decades and that often children experiencing one are likely to also be experiencing the other. This magnitude of violence in two spaces children spend most of their time – school and online – holds a magnifying glass to the unseen issue of the ways in which violence replicates itself.

Samantha*, a 29-year-old from London says that her earliest memory of colourism is from when she was 12 and overheard some boys talking about girls they fancied. “One of them mentioned my name and I heard one of them say I was ‘blick’,” she says. “It’s just horrible as a young girl. You just think, ‘what’s wrong with me?’”

“The targeted violence amplified in the bubble of social media cannot be withdrawn from the offline violence dark-skinned black girls were experiencing at the same time”

The targeted violence amplified in the bubble of social media cannot be withdrawn from the offline violence dark-skinned black girls were experiencing at the same time and oftentimes having to share physical space with the perpetrators. Being in school with somebody who would post anti-black and colourist statements online and watching them grow a popular offline status wasn’t uncommon and for Jeanelle, 24, from London, her online and offline experiences were particularly close to home.

“I didn’t engage with the popular account online or offline, however there was a time early in my first year of college where I clashed with him and he took to writing a series of tweets about my appearance,” says Jeannelle. “After that, I stopped wearing red lipstick. I became really quiet and standoffish. I felt like that was the best way to protect myself. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I developed anxiety and had frequent panic attacks. I had counselling throughout my first six months of college and this would take place just before my class with the person running the account.”

I have seen many black women over the years remind us of the black men who had built their large followings on the backs of the black women they had slandered back in the day while being gaslit into thinking that era of Twitter was a pure blip. 

Molly, 23, from East London, was one of the women who recently spoke up about this: “I’ve seen some of these people grow. Seeing their platforms get bigger and them launching businesses using black women as their target audience. Black women are spending money on people that don’t respect us as human beings.”

Callouts and cancel culture

Over a decade later, we stand to face the same issues. Twitter may no longer be exactly the same as it was in 2011, but where are those people who partook in sharing and co-signing targeted abuse now?

In the huddle of Black Twitter, call-outs can automatically seem malicious, but it isn’t always the intention to ruin anyone’s opportunity at redemption. It soon became clear to me that there was a difference in the digital accountability black women like Molly who had been previously gaslit about their experiences were seeking, versus the destructive exposé-style reveals that came from anonymous accounts that seemed to enjoy sharing an abundance of anti-black women tweets, with no responsibility for care.

Seyi Akiwowo, the founder of digital citizenship organisation Glitch, has studied the patterns of online abuse and the digital space over the years. “Do we really understand what online abuse is?” she asks. “We’re in danger of committing that act to each other in the name of ‘banter’ or becoming an echo-chamber. Where are the boundaries between true accountability and venturing into online abuse?”

“Apologies don’t have to be forgiven and actions don’t have to be forgotten, but what it means to hold someone to account for their actions should take into consideration substantial examples of changed behaviour”

The responses have been mixed at extreme ends; some calling for the heads of serial tweeters and others suggesting a more blasé approach in the hopes that people have “grown” out of their misogynoir. The idea that one can simply “grow” out of misogynoir like a pair of old shoes fails to recognise the evolved nature of misogynoir that still exists in the online and offline space. Misogynoiristic comments about black women’s hair and bodies are still rampant. It also doesn’t seem to challenge enough what digital accountability looks like when it comes to tangible, actionable change.

The doubling down on black women who co-signed misogynoiristic tweets through retweets, laughing emojis and their own personal bad takes, which is likely reflective of an internalised anti-blackness, and later apologised, while men who shared physically and sexually violent tweets towards dark-skinned women and still gaslight black women about their experiences today remain unscathed is telling. There is a question to be asked about who forgiveness is afforded to and who by and who justice is served by and who for. In the run to one-up each other or use serious topics as a means to draw out personal vendettas, we lose sight of the bigger aim.

These situations require the nuance that social media, for all the things it has given us, simply doesn’t allow for. Apologies don’t have to be forgiven and actions don’t have to be forgotten, but what it means to hold someone to account for their actions should take into consideration substantial examples of changed behaviour. “Keeping the same energy” isn’t about avoiding applying nuance, but is about understanding our core values that creates the backbone of the justice we say we seek.

Moving forward

So, where do we go from here? A call for “better dialogue” in black communities has echoed through the timeline over the last few days, but we must question whose emotional and mental labour dialogue relies on in order to be realised. Dark-skinned black women need to be at the forefront as the targets of this slate of violence, however, there cannot be a dialogue after a bout of abuse and gaslighting if it heavily relies on the perpetrators being coddled. 

Equally, black men must take on some of the responsibility in educating themselves and their peers. “A lot of black men could do a lot more to tackle the abuse black women receive,” says Seyi. “Black men don’t know what to say. How do we equip them – without mothering – so they know how to speak to their peers and set an example for the next generation? It’s OK for us to not get along. What’s our responsibility to Black Twitter in order for it to be a thriving community? There’s a responsibility for us to start talking about and modelling those values, especially for the next generation.”

“There’s a really confronting conversation we need to have about our accountability structure within our community,” Seyi adds. “There’s a lot of bystander activity. We don’t seem to call out our peers. We should feel free to call out someone with 400 followers and someone with 40,000 followers.” 

“It really hurts me to hear that a decade later, my sister has gone through the exact same things I experienced”

The next generation is something I think about often. My 16-year-old sister recently uploaded a video on her YouTube channel talking about her experiences of colourism. She tells me: “The first time I experienced colourism was in Year 8, which feels like a long time ago now, but most recently, about a year ago I was in a video on my friend’s YouTube channel. There were loads of comments about my skin colour – people calling me “blick” and “ugly”. It wasn’t just one comment – there were loads. There were so many negative comments. It really got to me at the time.” It really hurts me to hear that a decade later, my sister has gone through the exact same things I experienced as a teenager and reminds me that we as a collective community are failing the next generation.

My emotions around her experiences are a reminder that we must collectively allow space for feeling. The anger, hurt and betrayal of it all is often invalidated towards those who are constantly denied the emotional right to be bruised.

I wish there was a bonafide, assured note to end on that would magic our community into emotional freedom. We have a long way to go, but that’s not news to anyone. The digital space and its relationship with the offline space need to be considered in the ways we interact with each other. Incorporating care into the process of accountability in order to reach a space of healing is essential, not only for ourselves but for the generations ahead of us.

We can start today with those we love – those around us that we care for and hold close. We can kick start the flow of generational healing by having these conversations with the generations before and generations after us. We can do the personal work to heal ourselves and confront the beast eating away at us from within.

The roles white supremacist patriarchal systems have played cannot be divorced from the reality of the fall-out, but in the work of dismantling those systems, we also need to look inwards at our personal accountability.

*Names have been changed to protect identities