When it was announced, a few weeks ago, that the Los Angeles Times had assigned a reporter, Dexter Thomas, to cover Black Twitter as a regular beat, the response from those of us who fall into that unofficially official group of social media dwellers was predictably mixed—and by “mixed,” I mean a handful of folks were willing to afford Thomas’s journalistic mission the benefit of the doubt, but there were more who were annoyed, suspicious and convinced that the whole thing would be a major fail. Mostly, there were also a lot of questions about how he’d report on a collective with which he didn’t seem to be intimately connected.
I appeared on Huff Post Live to discuss the hire last week and expressed my hope that this person (and the other folks who have been reporting on Black Twitter for various print and digital outlets without it being announced–#staywoke, as we say in our secret public online lair) would use their exposure to these diverse, nuanced conversations and the people who drive them to improve the quality of reporting on issues of race.
And then that first column dropped.
Breh. As a description, “tone deaf” would be kind.
In a week during which we had #GrowingUpBlack, the defense of Amandla Stenberg after she was attacked for critiquing cultural appropriation and excitement/debate over Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” and Black Twitter rose as one to demand answers in the death of #SandraBland—a Black woman arrested for not using her turn signal who wound up dying in jail—Thomas zeroed in on peripheral chatter about Tyga. Not only that, but Thomas chose to instead focus on what might be Black Twitter’s lowest common denominator: transphobic responses that followed when a trans woman posted nude pictures of the rapper and claimed that the two had a sexual relationship.
“[A] lot of the reactions online have been pretty vile,” said Thomas. And this was true, there were a number of troubling tweets in response to the revelation, and many of them make jokes about the fact that the “Rack City” rapper was accused cheating on his underage alleged girlfriend, Kylie Jenner.
“Tyga was a trending topic on Twitter for most of the week, and anyone following it would see a flurry of homophobic and transphobic slurs. One popular tweeter wrote that Tyga didn’t know the difference “between a tranny and an [actual] woman.””
Thomas leans on the tired, and often debunked notion that Black people—or, Black Twitter users—are more bigoted than others (AKA White people; we don’t often compare ourselves to anyone else, do we?) as it relates to sexuality and gender identity.
“…Tyga is being shamed for allegedly loving an “unnatural” woman and Isabella is being shamed for existing. Not everyone doing this was Black. But it was Black Twitter, the active community on the platform that is most in tune with hip-hop music culture, that led the charge.”
I’m note sure where the hip-hop reference fits in here, perhaps his editor was concerned that Thomas had not effectively asserted his urban credentials enough. I’m also confused as to how Black Twitter “led the charge,” but perhaps the writer could point to some examples as to how these tweeters had changed the temperature of the conversation around Tyga’s alleged mistress.
Thomas has pulled two tweets as representative of what “Black Twitter” was doing wrong. Two. Writers routinely use just a tweet or two to make reference to an online conversation when discussing a broader topic. However, this writer is reporting specifically on Black Twitter. And he failed to prove his thesis. It was a story about Twitter that lacked…Tweets.
There is a real conversation to have about transphobia—an urgent one, considering the murder rate for trans women, particularly trans women of color. However, what Thomas has done with this bumbling, disjointed treatise, is suggest that Black Twitter/#Black Twitter/”Black Twitter” doesn’t deserve it’s reputation for being open-minded and thoughtful:
“That’s not the face of Black Twitter the media fawns over in articles with headlines like “Black Twitter Flexing Muscles On and Offline”…most reporting on Black Twitter shows the community being one of two things: funny or progressive (sometimes both). But there seems to be a disconnect between that coverage and Black Twitter’s negative (if brief) fixation on Tyga.”
Two problems here; one, as Thomas does not seem to be a real resident of Black Twitter, he doesn’t realize that Tyga is often a “fixation,” he is a perpetual punchline and constantly the target of jokes/critique about his relationship with 17-year-old Kylie Jenner (and his general corniness.) Really, only George Zimmerman and Donald Trump best him in unpopularity.
In short, Tyga is the Tyga of Black Twitter.
But are the two people (ALL TWO OF THEM) folks that were cited as an example of Black Twitter’s rampant transphobia who participate in #BlackLivesMatter twitter conversations? Can two tweets really prove that this is representative of Black Twitter? My timeline, wihch may skew a bit towards social justice folks and writers, includes a pretty diverse group of folks (I follow over 3,600 people and have 54k followers; Thomas follows 564 and has nearly 5,300 followers) who don’t all share my politics. And I didn’t see as much transphobia as I did the general sentiment that Tyga is the worst, always, and will forever be.
“How can we reconcile this with our view of Black Twitter as a unified collective of progressive people who enjoy jokes and social justice,” says Thomas. “That was a trick question. We can’t.”
Who is the “our?” It seems like Thomas himself has been informed about Black Twitter via the various articles that have oversimplfied the space as this “unified collective of progressive people.”
The idea that all of Black Twitter is on one page about any topic or issue is unreasonable, which Thomas himself admits: “Black Twitter, like every other online community, is a diverse and tangled mess of opinions. We would be doing the community an injustice if we pretended otherwise. In other words, Black Twitter looks an awful lot like White Twitter.”
Is White the default color of humanity? Why do you keep bringing them up, sir?
Black Twitter is not SNCC or the Black Panther Party, there is no “10 Point Program,” there are a lot of people with a lot of opinions and some of them are absolutely horrible. There are radical gender non-conforming feminists and there are straight-up misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic rape apologists and everything you can imagine in between and we are sharing the same space. The beautiful thing here is that opinions and attitudes can transform and the powerful conversations that take place on Black Twitter have shaped some of those transformations. I’ve personally watched sexist dudebros become nuanced in their thinking about gender, I’ve watched people come to understand and affirm trans identities and this paradigm shifts had a lot to do with interacting with people on Black Twitter and using it as a learning space.
Thomas would know that if he actually lived “there.” Instead, he refers to those who push back “against all kinds of bias” as “a vocal minority.” It’s at this point in the article that it becomes painfully obvious that the writer is in over his head. He wants to provoke a conversation about intersectionality, but he doesn’t seem to know these discussions have BEEN happening on Black Twitter. Again, he simply isn’t connected enough there to see it. He makes a point to say that in this group, “as in mainstream America – straight men usually come first.” But where is the understanding of the large, loud group of Black feminists who have driven dialogue and, in some cases, literally built careers from challenging that on Twitter?
Think of Black Twitter as a wildly diverse city, like New York. Liberal, Artsy Brooklyn Twitter may be on the same page about something, but it’s not necessarily the same as Old Money Upper East Side Twitter. Likewise, progressive, social justice-focused Black Twitter can’t represent the entire subnetwork anymore than Raven Symoné can represent the whole of Black people.
I’d hoped for Thomas to use the trending topic of the day to do some deeper exploration of issues that are of concern to Black Twitter peeps, such as #(insert name of Black person killed by cops today here) and conversation around 2016 presidential hopefuls, or that he would perhaps take something as fun as #GrowingUpBlack and use it as an example of how we have created a cyber village or town square where we come to signify, mourn, celebrate and organize. Instead, it seems that yet another Black writer has found a space to get paid to publicly take his people to the woodshed.
Can Thomas provide a clearer lens through which we can evaluate ourselves, or a warped one through which outsiders can find the dysfunction they were looking for all along? #Wegonsee
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com’s Senior Editor. Views expressed here are her own, and informed by the fact that she has been an active (Black) Twitter user since November 5, 2008.