Black Feminism, Hashtags, and the Importance of Twitter to American Studies | Amanda Lineberry

Erica L. Williams @EricaLWilliams ∙ Aug 14

“The negative reactions to #solidarityisforwhitewomen & #blackpowerisforblackmen are evidence of the embattled position of black women.”[1]

 

In August of 2013, Twitter became a platform for a heated debate around black feminism that highlights the intersectionality of gender and race using two hashtags: #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #blackpowerisforblackmen. These two hashtags function differently and pull together distinct conversations with different actors. #Solidarityisforwhitewomen, first used by Mikki Kendall (@Karynthia), emerged out of a heated conversation between white and black feminist public figures. #Blackpowerisforblackmen emerged shortly after from Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLamieux), and was used to highlight the effect of black male privilege on black women. While different, these two hashtags began trending on Twitter around the same time and have often been intertwined within tweets and blog posts. I argue that these hashtags demonstrate the historically marginalized position that black feminists have been in since the onset of the Feminist and Civil Rights movements through connecting critiques of white feminism and black empowerment. At the same time, they demonstrate how Twitter can act as a new, innovative platform for creating accessible cultural texts that are inherently intersectional.

Twitter as Text

Before unpacking these hashtags, it is useful to unpack how Twitter works. As long as you have an email address, you can make a Twitter account. They are completely free and do not require any verifying information. Each tweet that someone writes from their Twitter account is limited to 160 characters. Tweets may link to blog posts and Instagram photos, but are primarily text. Other Twitter users can reply to a tweet, favorite a tweet, or retweet a tweet. If you reply to a tweet, your response is posted to your own tweet feed, and also links the tweet you responded to onto your feed. If you retweet a tweet, it also is republished to your feed. The more times a tweet is favorited or retweeted, the more priority it gets on other news feeds. If favorited and retweeted enough, a tweet may go viral, meaning that it shows up on all your friends’ feeds and perhaps their friends’ feeds. Hashtags, which were originally unique to Twitter, help tweets go viral by connecting them to a larger conversation that involves people beyond your immediate social group. A hashtag is a catchphrase of sorts that is connected by the pound sign (i.e. #solidarityisforwhitewomen). When you add a hashtag to an expression, Twitter links it to all other tweets that used that hashtag. I use hashtags as ‘texts’ in this analysis because of the coherent dialogue on a particular issue that they can provide. Hashtags are a unique kind of text because they are constantly changing and have multiple authors.

Tweets are ephemeral and hard to capture, which makes them difficult to use in academic writing. So why is Twitter an important new type of text? Precisely for the reasons that it is so difficult to use in academic writing: it is accessible and collaborative. Twitter hashtags can bring together the dialogue between public figures and its average users. Since its inception in March of 2006, Twitter has become a new and innovative platform for social movements and political dialogue. During the Arab Spring, Twitter was an organizing tool that spread information about meetings and protests quickly and effectively. During the 2012 presidential election, debates were quoted, critiqued, chewed up, and spit back out all onto the same platform by political talking heads, fellow politicians, and average voters alike. Its accessibility and connectivity are what make it an innovative type of text or media. Twitter certainly does reinforce the digital divide, and privileges those who have smart phones and can tweet and read tweets in real time from their phones. Nevertheless, it is much more accessible than an academic press or other form of published media. Users have complete control over the flow of information, including what information gets prioritized, reused, and trends.

Twitter hashtags are particularly relevant to this current moment in American Studies. Digital media is becoming the medium for articulating American culture more and more, whether that is music, YouTube videos, blogs, Netflix, or Twitter trends. These forms of media transcend many of the ‘under-theorized’ areas within American Studies that George Lipsitz identifies, including: “the utility of national boundaries as fitting limits for the study of culture, the reliability of categories that establish canons of great works, or that divide ‘high’ and ‘low culture, the ability of art and literature to mirror a unified culture uniting the intentions and subjectivities of artists and audiences.”[2] Twitter doesn’t necessarily fit into national boundaries when commenting on American culture. Jimmy Fallon may start a hashtag about his New York-based TV show, but it may be trending all over the world in 24 hours. Jamilah Lemieux may create the #blackpowerisforblackmen hashtag, but that doesn’t keep it from being used and reworked by a Twitter user in the United Kingdom. Twitter also connects the creators and the consumers of American culture onto one platform. Through its mechanics, Twitter is inherently a transnational and collaborative generator of text that bridges many of the divides that Lipsitz critiques. Finally, Lipsitz notes that “cultural texts are inescapably part of social processes and that social processes are themselves always textualized in some form.”[3] Twitter makes this process transparent by creating a connective platform for cultural texts to be regurgitated, debated, reworked, critiqued, and commented on all within the same sphere.

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen

Mikki Kendall (@Karynthia), a feminist writer and popular Twitter personality, created #solidarityisforwhitewomen originally in August of 2013 in response to a monologue that self-proclaimed male feminist Hugo Schwyzer (@hugoschwyzer). Schwyzer tweeted that he had been particularly awful to women of color, because they were “in the way” of the feminist movement.[4] He went on to apologize and many white female feminists tweeted support for him and the future of his career. In response, Mikki Kendall tweeted, “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen when the mental health and future prospects for @hugoschwyzer are more important than the damage he did,” drawing attention to where Twitter response focused – on the pain of one white man over countless women of color. Since then the hashtag has been used in a number of ways. Using the top 100 tweets that include the hashtag, as well as the most recent 100 tweets including the hashtag, I surveyed #solidarityisforwhitewomen and identified the three primary uses of it.[5] This includes critiquing the double standards that white actresses and black actresses are held to, critiquing the privileged position that white women have in feminist dialogue, and white feminists identifying a way they have learned from the conversation on Twitter.

#Solidarityisforwhitewomen has been used to connect critiques of double standards that white and black female celebrities are held to, drawing attention to the privilege that white female actresses have in the media. For instance, Imani ABL (@AngryBlackLady) tweeted, “#solidarityisforwhitewomen RT @pitchforkmedia: .@warpaint criticize @Beyonce and @rihanna for ‘hyper-sexual’ music,” on April 30.[6] Embedded in Imani’s tweet is a hyperlink to an article discussing the extra criticism that black women come under when expressing their sexuality. A similar critique was tweeted on November 21 by zoe (@BabyWasu), who retweeted a photo of two Huffington Post article titles side by side with the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen.[7] The first article praised Miley Cyrus as a feminist icon, featuring a photo of her wearing a leotard while apparently twerking. The second article featured beside this criticizes Nikki Minaj for showing too much skin by wearing a blazer without a shirt under it (see Figure 1). This use of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag draws attention to the double standard that white and black feminists face in how much skin they’re allowed to show. Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon when she is revealing skin and expressing herself freely, but Nicki Minaj is being provocative. By linking these two critiques, along with many more, #solidarityisforwhitewomen can create a comprehensive dialogue of the double standards that white and black celebrities face. This list is then easily accessible and popularized through Twitter. The hashtag thus can help create a clearer picture of how racism plays out in popular culture by acting as a linking mechanism.

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Figure 1: An example of double standards.

The next use of #solidarityisforwhitewomen is to draw attention to the spaces where white feminists are privileged over black feminists, particularly in academia. Kelso (@KHarrington6), a Virginia Tech student, did this in a powerful way when she tweeted, “#solidarityisforwhitewomen Who gets to be a professional feminist? Staff photo….hmmm…. #fem2 @NOWYoungFems,” along with a photo of eight Virginia Tech Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies teachers, all of whom are white women (Figure 2).[1] Angie M (@laprofepdx) tweeted “#solidarityisforwhitewomen when the only Latina professor at pdx.edu to speak at the feminist fair is an underpaid adjunct.”[2] These two tweets raise problems within their own institutions but, when paired together with #solidarityisforwhitewomen, draw attention to the institutional exclusion of feminists of color in academic settings.

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Figure 2. Virginia Tech WGSS Staff, tweeted by Kelso (@KHarrington6). Source: Twitter.

The final use of #solidarityisforwhitewomen is by white women themselves to publicize their own moments of learning, criticize themselves, and connect that to the greater dialogue. On April 5, Brianne Bilyeu (@abiodork) tweeted “I found #solidarityforwhitewomen to be incredibly thought-provoking; made me examine my own biases and privileges. #skeptech.”[10] Bilyeu acknowledges that she read through the collection of #solidarityisforwhitewomen tweets as a cohesive text and learned from them. The collection of short insights from this collaborative text helped her examine her own white privilege within feminism. Other white feminists use the hashtag to call attention to the mistakes of other white women in order to improve white feminists as a collective. For example, Lauren Rankin (@laurenrankin), a popular white feminist personality on Twitter, tweeted on October 29, “#Solidarityisforwhitewomen was created by @Karnythia to address the erasure of black women within feminism. And we’re STILL DOING IT.”[11] Rankin was drawing attention to an event to discuss the hashtag in which the hosts didn’t invite the hashtags creator, Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia). While this particular use of the hashtag seems productive, Kendall has also complained that white feminists may overuse the hashtag, taking up much of a digital space that was originally created for women of color who felt excluded from mainstream feminist digital media.

Together, these three uses of #solidarityisforwhitewomen show how Twitter is being used to create digital spaces for black feminists in order to promote their voices within the feminist movement. The hashtag connects dialogues and creates a cohesive, collaborative text that addresses ways that women of color are marginalized in society as a whole and within feminist communities. Without the hashtag, these dialogues would continue to be scattered across the web. #Solidarityisforwhitewomen unites voices for women of color and amplifies their presence.

#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen

Inspired by this hashtag, another black feminist created #blackpowerisforblackmen – another hashtag used to make a digital space for expressing how they felt marginalized within black empowerment efforts. This hashtag came hot on the heels of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, and started trending in the same month. The first person to use this tweet is online feminist personality Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLamieux), who tweeted, “#blackpowerisforblackmen because you can be the most self-righteous Black man ever and not have a single sister in your dating history. Not one.”[12] As seen in its first articulation, this hashtag is much more personal and has created considerable tension among black Twitter users. Unlike #solidarityisforwhitewomen, most of the group targeted by the tweet (black men) is critiquing it, though there are plenty of black men who point out what they have learned from reading through tweets associated with the hashtag. The tweet is used in many similar ways as #solidarityisforwhitewomen, focusing on black empowerment instead of feminism. Using the same methods I used to analyze #solidarityisforwhitewomen, I have identified three trends among uses of #blackpowerisforblackmen on Twitter. In particular, the tweet is used to point out where the media focuses on black men and ignores black women, as well as when black women are excluded from dialogue about black America. The hashtag is also used to point out how these inequalities have persisted throughout history.

Like #solidarityisforwhitewomen, #blackpowerisforblackmen collects critiques of the media, gathering instances where black men receive attention, but black women are ignored. Juju Nanny (@_jassywings) used the hashtag to connect Donald Sterling, owner of the Clippers, and his recent racist comments towards black men to a greater conversation about how people react to instances of racism. She tweeted, “#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen because if Sterling would’ve said what he said about BW, no one would think any of it. #BlackTwitter.”[13] iPHiA (@CheriPhi) tweeted a similar complaint about the Million Hoodie March after the murder of Trayvon Martin, asking “Where Is the Million Hood March for Renisha McBride?” alongside the hashtag.[14] Renisha McBride, like Trayvon Martin, was murdered by a man whose actions were said to be racially charged. These two uses of the hashtag demonstrate how black feminists are collectively trying to draw attention to the fact that discrimination against black men gets more attention than discrimination against black women.

In a similar vein, black women use #blackpowerisforblackmen to call out black male leaders for excluding black women. A powerful example of this is when Neal Carter, a black man, tweeted a photograph of a flyer for a “Black America” panel accompanied by this critique: “Another ‘black america’ panel, without one black womens voice #blackpowerisforblackmen” (Figure 3).[15] The tweet points out the clear exclusion that black women face within the black community itself. Indeed, many of the tweets associated with the #blackpowerisforblackmen are pointed and personal attacks on black men. In this sense, the hashtag is much more divisive.

Figure 3. Flyer for a “Black America” panel that doesn’t feature a black women. Source: Twitter.
Figure 3. Flyer for a “Black America” panel that doesn’t feature a black women. Source: Twitter.

Finally, #blackpowerisforblackmen is unique in that it is often used to discuss the lack of acknowledgement of black women in the history of the Civil Rights movement. For example, Robin D. G. Kelley (@RobinDGKelley) tweeted, “#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen When we can name Emmett Till but can’t name Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley,” who were the four girls killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama – an anti-Civil Rights terrorist attack.[16] Another woman, Kyra (@BackThatSassUpK), tweeted, “#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen bc no one knows that Rosa Parks was an anti-rape activist for a decade before she didn’t get up on the bus.”[17] These tweets are two of the top tweets using the hashtag, demonstrating the #blackpowerisforblackmen has become an important platform for highlighting not only where black women are excluded in dialogue today, but how they were excluded from the Civil Rights Movement historically.

#Blackpowerisforblackmen is a powerful digital space where black men and women have the opportunity to discuss inequalities and power struggles that have been around since the Civil Rights Movement. Twitter makes this process uniquely public, making #blackpowerisforblackmen a place for learning for Twitter users as a whole. The text, while divisive and perhaps personal, is profound in its complexity and range of issues discussed.

Conclusion

These two hashtags are creating innovative and important spaces for black feminism to express itself in both of the two camps that it has been historically excluded from – white feminism and black empowerment. Twitter has created a unique platform for black feminists to express themselves freely as individuals, but also connect that dialogue to other black feminists through hashtags like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #blackpowerisforblackmen. The individual texts that these women tweeted would not be influential without the connective tissue that the hashtags can provide. These tweets are powerful in their aggregate, as comprehensive lists of microaggressions against black women, collections of discriminatory practices, and public conversations between important figures promoting black feminism. The format of the hashtag allows for these texts to be intersectional, transnational, and nonhierarchical, in a way that many current American Studies cultural studies are not. Twitter is certainly not an easy text to analyze within academic study, as its difficult to capture, organize, and archive. Nevertheless, it is an important way to aggregate American voices and make the dialogue over American culture and political movements, such as black feminism, more accessible and dynamic.

 

 

Bibliography

Angie M, Twitter post, April 16, 2014, 2:02pm. < https://twitter.com/laprofepdx> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Brianne Bilyeu, Twitter post, April 5, 2014, 11:42am. < https://twitter.com/abiodork> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Imani ABL, Twitter Post, April 30, 2013, 8:08pm. https://twitter.com/AngryBlackLady Accessed April 30, 2014.

iPHiA, Twitter Post, November 21, 2013, 5:12pm. < https://twitter.com/CheriPhi> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Jamilah Lemieux. Twitter post, August 13, 2013, 8:06pm. < https://twitter.com/JamilahLemieux> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Juju Nanny, Twitter Post, April 28, 2014, 12:18am < https://twitter.com/_jassywings> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Kelso, Twitter post, September 5, 2013, 8:38pm. < https://twitter.com/KHarrington6> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Kyra, Twitter post, August 14, 2013, 12:29am < https://twitter.com/BackThatSassUpK> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Lamont Hill, Marc. “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Creator, Mikki Kendal, Speaks Out About Women of Color, Feminism (VIDEO),” HuffPost Live. August, 13, 2013, 1:59pm. < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/13/solidarityisforwhitewomen-creator-mikki-kendal-women-of-color-feminism-_n_3749589.html> Accessed April 20, 2014.

Lauren Rankin, Twitter post, October 29, 2013, 7:30pm. < https://twitter.com/laurenarankin> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Lipsitz, George. “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies,” American Quartly, Vol. 42, No. 4. (Dec. 1990) p. 617.

Neal Carter, Twitter Post, September 8, 2013, 11:57am < https://twitter.com/nealcarter> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Robin D. G. Kelley, Twitter post, August 15, 2013, 6:25pm. < https://twitter.com/RobinDGKelley> Accessed April 30, 2014.

Williams, Erica L. Twitter Post, August 14, 2013, 8:42am. https://twitter.com/EricaLWilliams7 Accessed April 30, 2014.

zoe, Twitter Post, November 21, 2013, 10:52am. https://twitter.com/BabyWasu Accessed April 30, 2014.

End Notes

[1] Williams, Erica L. Twitter Post, August 14, 2013, 8:42am. https://twitter.com/EricaLWilliams7 Accessed April 30, 2014.

[2] Lipsitz, George. “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies,” American Quartly, Vol. 42, No. 4. (Dec. 1990) p. 617.

[3] Lipsitz (1990). p. 617.

[4] Lamont Hill, Marc. “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Creator, Mikki Kendal, Speaks Out About Women of Color, Feminism (VIDEO),” HuffPost Live. August, 13, 2013, 1:59pm. < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/13/solidarityisforwhitewomen-creator-mikki-kendal-women-of-color-feminism-_n_3749589.html> Accessed April 20, 2014.

[5] On Twitter, there is a search box that allows you to find tweets based on categories or hashtags. When you search any hashtag, there are two sets of tweets that you can look at. One is the “Top” tweets that have used the hashtag searched, which are the tweets that have used that hashtag that have been retweeted, favorited, and replied to the most. In other words, these are the tweets using the hashtag that have generated the conversation. The other category is “All,” which includes all tweets using the hashtag as they are tweeted in real time. In order to capture these lists of tweets, I printed the “Top” 100 tweets and the latest 100 tweets using #solidarityisforwhitewomen, which were tweeted between April 30, 2014 and August 31, 2013. I use both sets of tweets in order to capture the most present and popular dialogue, as well as the common and accessible dialogue.

[6] Imani ABL, Twitter Post, April 30, 2013, 8:08pm. https://twitter.com/AngryBlackLady Accessed April 30, 2014. Note that “RT” denotes a tweet that was retweeted, or originally written by someone else and then also used and posted by another Twitter user on their own profile.

[7] zoe, Twitter Post, November 21, 2013, 10:52am. https://twitter.com/BabyWasu Accessed April 30, 2014.

[8] Kelso, Twitter post, September 5, 2013, 8:38pm. < https://twitter.com/KHarrington6> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[9] Angie M, Twitter post, April 16, 2014, 2:02pm. < https://twitter.com/laprofepdx> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[10] Brianne Bilyeu, Twitter post, April 5, 2014, 11:42am. < https://twitter.com/abiodork> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[11] Lauren Rankin, Twitter post, October 29, 2013, 7:30pm. < https://twitter.com/laurenarankin> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[12] Jamilah Lemieux. Twitter post, August 13, 2013, 8:06pm. < https://twitter.com/JamilahLemieux> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[13] Juju Nanny, Twitter Post, April 28, 2014, 12:18am < https://twitter.com/_jassywings> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[14] iPHiA, Twitter Post, November 21, 2013, 5:12pm. < https://twitter.com/CheriPhi> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[15] Neal Carter, Twitter Post, September 8, 2013, 11:57am < https://twitter.com/nealcarter> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[16] Robin D. G. Kelley, Twitter post, August 15, 2013, 6:25pm. < https://twitter.com/RobinDGKelley> Accessed April 30, 2014.

[17] Kyra, Twitter post, August 14, 2013, 12:29am < https://twitter.com/BackThatSassUpK> Accessed April 30, 2014. The “bc” in this tweet stands for “because.”

Context Links

An article in Jezebel discussing the issue of “Black Power Is For Black Men.”

Here’s an interview with the creator of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

Here’s a piece on misogyny in the black community.

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alineberry_bio
Amanda Lineberry is a member of the class of 2014 majoring in American Studies and Political Science. She is a Richmond native and has used her time at UR to learn more about her hometown through community-based learning and her work with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. She has interned with the Digital Scholarship Lab, and takes every chance that she can to learn about new digital mapping tools and social media technologies.

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