Yesterday, I tweeted this study about white privilege:
“Study: White people react to evidence of white privilege by claiming greater personal hardships” https://t.co/kAMB0q6Npq #privilege
— Katia Hildebrandt (@kbhildebrandt) November 30, 2015
The tweet got a few likes and a few retweets, mostly from other professors in my faculty. I moved on. The study’s findings aren’t unexpected: they are in line with my own experiences working with pre-service teachers on topics of race and privilege, and they line up with other research about typical responses to learning about white privilege.
Today, I opened Twitter to find that I had 65 notifications, all from people responding to my tweet in various troll-like ways (most of which, ironically, included denial of white privilege and endorsements of meritocracy).
The responses ranged from cryptic comments to derogatory personal attacks, most apparently stemming from my tweet being retweeted by Twitter user @Nero to his 116K followers. Some of the worst include these gems:
And my personal favourite: @Nero didn’t actually comment on my tweet, but judging from his other tweets, it seems likely that he wasn’t retweeting me to signal his approval; scrolling through his recent feed, I found this tweet, which suggests that I’m not the only one who has experienced this:
@Nero great now your weirdo racist army of twitter misogynists is harassing me. You should apologize for encouraging their hate speech. — Comfortably Smug (@ComfortablySmug) December 1, 2015
This isn’t my first encounter with Twitter trolls, and I have a fairly thick skin; as well, a little digging also told me that most of the accounts in the troll army have few followers, and some are likely fake or paid accounts set up specifically for the purpose of trolling. Nevertheless, I found the situation a bit unsettling. At the very least, it paints a pretty depressing picture of the state of society. Also, it’s hard not to wonder if the reaction would have been the same had I been a white male tweeting the same article – I’m inclined to think that the answer is a resounding “no,” given the female-targeted responses to the Gamergate controversy.
But what’s more unsettling to me is that the trolls’ responses are likely an effective intimidation technique for most people. It makes it a whole lot less appealing to discuss social justice issues online when you know you’re setting yourself up for this type of hateful personal attack. As an educator, I am a huge proponent of speaking out about these types of controversial issues on social media, and I encourage my pre-service teachers to do the same, but this encouragement now needs to come with a warning about the potential ramifications.
Luckily, the Internet isn’t all bad. I received several messages of support:
So @kbhildebrandt tweets article re: #whiteprivilege & receives personal attacks, 1 that calls her a white bitch. This is discourse in ’15. — Alec Couros (@courosa) December 1, 2015
@kbhildebrandt The other billion of us aren’t. Keep it up. — Rebecca Moore Howard (@rmhoward) December 1, 2015
@kbhildebrandt With Canada’s dark history coming to light this is regrettable but is necessary for #Reconciliation #MyExperienceWithRacism — Edmund Bellegarde (@TCBFHQ) December 1, 2015
I think that last one sums it up nicely. We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right track.