My Experience With Online Harassment For Blogging About Race and Gender

5 years ago

In early January, Amanda Hess wrote an article at Pacific Standard Magazine detailing the harassment of women online, which spawned a follow up article with women around the country writing in about their experiences with online abuse.

For most of my blogging life, I’ve considered Internet harassment as something that happens to other bloggers. "Harassment", in my mind, was all-out threats to one’s bodily safety, such as the rape threats received by Amanda Hess. Threats of rape, and even death, aren’t new to women bloggers. Zerlina Maxwell and Anita Sarkeesian come to mind quickly as high-profile cases of female writers who’ve been publicly threatened and shamed… for speaking out about race and gender issues. Harvard sex blogger Lena Chen moved to Europe and reportedly hasn’t gone on Twitter or touched a cell phone in six months.

Image Credit: Arbron, via Flickr

While I consider myself lucky to not have experienced those extremely violating forms of online harassment, one incident on Twitter crossed the line for me. In early December, I participated in the #NotYourAsianSidekick Twitter chat. I had been in front of my laptop all evening, watching, reading, tweeting and retweeting. Close to midnight, I wrote about the movement on BlogHer, which was retweeted over 150 times. I was getting ready to call it a night, when I did one last scan of my interactions. I didn’t think I could follow myself, I thought, as I saw my own avatar in my list of followers. Then a certain word caught my eye in the stream of tweets… the n-word, which I don’t use… then several other angry replies to the tweet — which was next to my face, my name, my Twitter handle.

What was going on?

That satisfaction of connecting with others online was quickly replaced by the heart-pounding sense of panic. I was looking over my shoulder, even though I was safely in my own living room. I looked closer at the Twitter account. It only had a few followers and specialized in tweeting to racist — often anti-black — messages in the #NotYourAsianSidekick stream. They had even put enough thoughts into some of their tweets that they were responding to people who RT’d the link to my blog post, with a message that someone had put me up to writing it.

But how did they clone my account? Sure, they could steal my profile photo and copy and paste my bio, but how could they use the exact same username? Then, I noticed. They had cleverly created the Twitter handle of @HapaMannaGrace, which at a quick glance, looks almost exactly like my account name, @HapaMamaGrace.

Sure, I’ve received angry comments and emails before, especially when I write about race and gender. Even innocuous topics, such as a post about a bone marrow drive for a four-year-old mixed-race boy with leukemia was linked to and criticized on a white supremacist website. I’ve had men I don’t know email me or find me on Facebook and send me personal messages calling me a “racist”, a “bitch” and “ugly” (why is criticizng a woman’s appearance always the default insult?).

A quick check of my blogging circles revealed that some women who blog have harassing messages but that that abuse was especially common amongst women who write specifically about race or sex. Women of color noted that the insults often quickly turn to racial slurs and derogatory comments about their romantic partners.

Feminista Jones, BlogHer’s Love and Sex Editor, says she’s had men threaten to kill or rape her, harm her son or blow up her house:

"Add the fact that I'm a Black woman, and the racial slurs are often attached (when coming from White men). There have been days when whole groups of people have descended onto my timeline to call me every slur and insulting name under the sun, just because I am a Black feminist woman."

Jenn from Reappropriate tells me that photos of her were taken from a personal website and posted on an Internet forum, where they were

“used to label me as basically "unfuckable" with many male posters jumping in to rate my hotness, all while insinuating my long-term partner is an Asiaphile and fetishist and that my current viewpoints were a reaction to my parents' terrible approach to parenting.”

And just to be clear, not all the attacks come from white males. N'jaila Rhee of Blaysian Bytch, who is black and Asian, says it feels especially isolating when the attacks are lobbed by men from her own racial backgrounds:

“When you’re outspoken about race and bigotry, you spend a lot of time defending the humanity of Black men, and the masculinity of Asian men,” Rhee tells me. “When I get attacked for being a feminist by these men who I love and want to protect, there’s a deep hurt and resentment. I very much want that same impulse in them to defend me.”

Like many bloggers, I’ve generally subscribed to the policy of not feeding the trolls. Usually, I delete the hateful emails and ignore the especially mean-spirited comments. I don't use Foursquare or tag my photos with locations. Like writer and educator Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, I feel it's a balancing act between promoting -- and protecting -- myself. Wang tells me:

"I often pretended to be writing from one place when i was actually someplace else. and I often left out identifying place names (cities, schools, etc... hard to promote your brand and be secretive at same time, lol). i was most concerned with protecting my kids so we separated our names and accounts as much as possible and talked about this all the time."

But that fake Twitter account was too serious to ignore. As soon as I could gather my thoughts, I tweeted out a message saying that the other account was an impersonator and asked my followers to report it. That account was suspended that night.

I consulted friends about what I should do next. One male friend, who is prominent in Internet and tech circles, told me to ignore it. Other friends urged me to file a complaint with Twitter. Through the Twitter support page, I reported that someone was impersonating me. Even in this online age, filing the complaint involved faxing some paperwork to Twitter headquarters before they could proceed with the investigation. Three weeks later, I received a message from Twitter, telling me they had removed the fake profile name from circulation.

Do I feel safer online now? Not really. In fact, I feel a little uncomfortable right now, knowing that the act of writing about online harassment might draw the attention of just the kind of abusers I'm speaking out against. But my experiences, and the conversations around them, made it clear just how common these online violations are-- and even more so when race is added to already controversial gender topics. I no longer delete harassing emails, but like Amanda Hess, I save them in a file, just in case I ever need a paper trail. And I encourage you to do the same.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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