“You’re just the fucking type of animal that is a niger [sic],” a spelling-challenged reader emailed University of Pennsylvania professor and writer Anthea Butler last year.
Butler responded by posting the email on a Tumblr she had set up to expose the racist hate mail she routinely received. She did the same with several racist messages she got from a white man who then contacted her university to demand the removal of his emails from her Tumblr, which is called The Things People Say. Butler described these emails to The Intercept as she was getting her hair done at a beauty shop, which warrants mention because a lot of the insults she receives are directed at her large gray Afro. “Could someone tell Anthea Butler that Don King wants his wig back?” wrote a person using the name Jeannie McBride.
Butler, an associate professor of religious studies, believes her detractors are trying to silence black writers who use new media platforms to express viewpoints that were not heard as much before the Web came along. “You get the hate and vitriol every time you talk about race or you say something that’s unpopular,” Butler said. “It’s a way to get people of color to shut up.”
In three decades, minoritized groups will constitute a majority of the U.S. population. This fact, coupled with the social movement born after the numerous police killings of unarmed black people, such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner, feeds into the anxiety of some white citizens. Historically, individual white rage toward black people was expressed in a variety of ways, many of them physically violent. In today’s digital age, the Internet has made it even easier for bigots to disseminate their hate.
The online racism directed toward Butler and other black writers is similar, in its scope and severity, to the online misogyny exposed by the Gamergate controversy last year. Many people were shocked to read about the torrent of misogynist hate directed at video game developer Zoe Quinn after a jilted ex-boyfriend falsely accused her, in a blog post, of having used sex to advance in the gaming community. The threats got so bad that Quinn eventually fled her home out of fear for her safety. While the episode’s intensity was extraordinary, the problem faced by Quinn was far from unique among women. Women are disproportionately victimized by cyberviolence, according to Amanda Hess, who recently wrote about her own experiences as a female writer; one demented Twitter user even threatened to rape and behead her because of something she had written.
Butler is just one of many black writers to face online threats and harassment.
Every morning, Brittney Cooper, a contributing writer at Salon and a professor at Rutgers University, checks her email, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and every morning, she can count on reading an array of racist insults. “‘Black cuntbag’ is a very recent one and not a particular configuration I had heard,” she said with a laugh. She has also been referred to as a savage, she-gorilla, bitch, and professor in quote marks — a passive aggressive way of questioning her academic credentials. Cooper believes her critics — who include a man who threatened to confront her on campus — are a small yet feverish group that hate-follows her work, waiting for the opportunity to harass her.
“It’s scary,” she said. “They pass around my picture and inquire [for] details about my life.”
The blowback that black writers face can be emotionally taxing. Some of the writers interviewed for this story had a difficult time detailing specific examples of racists threats because they have become so frequent. The threats caused Cooper, for example, to momentarily reconsider her writing. “It does make you wonder,” she said, adding that she continues writing about racial issues because black writers “have to tell the truth even with threats. Because if we succumb … we’re never going to tell the really hard truths.”
Jelani Cobb, a contributor to The New Yorker, shares her sentiments.
“There’s racial retrenchment going on,” Cobb told me. “And we [black writers] are encountering a recalcitrant attitude on matters related to race.”
Cobb tries his best to ignore the malice aimed at him. “I don’t pay that much attention to it,” he said. “I try to keep it exiled to the periphery.” Praise and condemnation are equally dangerous for him. Praise, because it may cause a writer to lose his or her edge, and condemnation because anybody “can say things digitally … they get oxygen from responses.” Cobb, who is a history professor at the University of Connecticut, blocks people on Twitter who seek to debate him. “I realize there is no utility in having a Twitter argument [about American racism] with anybody,” he said.
While Twitter is a democratic space with obvious strengths — for example, #blacktwitter — it offers a peek into what Cobb described as the “boiling resentment and bigotry and unfiltered anger [that] is bubbling around out there in the world.” Guardian contributing writer Rebecca Carroll, noting the ease of online anonymity, calls Twitter “the KKK of social media — because it’s practically custom-built for hooded racists.”
Carroll, who says the term she is called more often than any other is “black bitch,” has zero tolerance for Twitter racists: “It’s just cowardly. But there are moments when I feel emotionally exhausted. But as long as I feel I can change the dialogue about race, I’m going to do that.”
As a black journalist who also writes on the subject of race, the ugly emails, tweets and comments were inevitable for me too. Nigger, thug, jiggaboo, and the slightly inventive “Lincoln’s mistake,” were unsurprising. But one reader succeeded where his cohorts failed.
“The next time I’m in Brooklyn I want you to remember this joke,” a person emailed me in December. “What do apples and black people have in common? They both hang from trees.” This person had probably read my staff bio, which mentions that I reside in Brooklyn. I could not forget this email; lynching is easily one of the most nefarious legacies of American white supremacy. It is not something one can easily jettison.
In middle school, I hit a bigoted bully in the face with a lunch tray after being called an anorexic nigger, but following the lynching email all I could do was shudder. I shuddered at being reminded of the racist terrorism my great-grandpa told me about from his upbringing in apartheid Egypt, Mississippi. I shuddered at being reminded of Emmett Till’s disfigured face splashed on the pages of Jet magazine. And I shuddered at the gruesome image of Laura Nelson, a black woman hanged from an Oklahoma bridge alongside her son in 1911.
America finds itself in a peculiar racial moment right now. There is a black man in the White House, but racism continues to infect society. The Internet, despite its drawbacks, has allowed a group of black writers and journalists — myself included — to flourish. This digital space, like none before it, has allowed us to voice our criticisms of culture, politics and economics. But an important question must be asked: Is the barrage of bile directed at black writers the work of a small battalion of trolls and hate-mongers, or are these bigots writing what many white Americans wish to say?
Against the Internet’s white noise, Butler has no plans on backing down.
“Sometimes I double down,” she said.
Cooper evoked feminist icon Audre Lorde, who wrote, “Your silence will not protect you.”