Sunday, February 14, 2016

When Neutral is Really Default Setting For Male (and White): A Slightly Non-Scientific SocMed Experiment

I have written before about online gendered harassment and trolling.  The recent report by the Women's Media Centre provides horrific - if unsurprising - statistics of gendered harassment that in large part echo women's IRL experiences (please do read. Makes for an illuminating if unedifying read). The centre's director recently shared this handy illustration to make sense of the scale and forms of the issue:

The wheel however leaves out aspects other than visible gender that impact our experiences online, including but not limited to race, nationality, religion, and sexuality.  Here I want to talk about just one of the above intersections: of gender with race. 

As a non-white woman who has spent much of her adult life on line as a blogger, writer, journalist and social media user, I am particularly aware of how visible markers of race - especially name and photograph - add to the gendered interactions. Women of colour face - IRL and online - a harassment on both axis. 

Moreover, given the scope of the Speech Project, the wheel does not take into account the drip feed of gendered, sexualised and racialised micro-aggressions  (such as derailment, dismissal, sealioning) that women, and more acutely, women of colour must cope with online. It is also necessary to differentiate the two - legally defined harassment and microaggressions - even though some impacts may be similar and the intents and tactics may be on the same spectrum. 

After over twenty-five years online (cue bad memories of early web and late 1980s fashion), I have come to expect abuse, trolling, harassment (as per the wheel) but also gendered and racialised microaggressions such as sealioning as the norm. This is simply by dint of presenting as a visibly nonwhite woman at the same time as holding opinions. Yet I am still (and frequently) surprised that often those opinions don't need to be about 'big things' like war, politics, economics, or even 'controversial' topics such as feminism or free speech (or Gamer Gate!). Even opinions about relatively niche topics such as theatre or art can suddenly trigger massive pushback with gendered and racialised language.  

Two weeks ago, before going to bed I tweeted some relatively innocuous thoughts about Caryl Churchill's new play at the Royal Court. I woke up next morning to a surprising amount of pushback, some abusive, other merely condescending and/or dismissive. On another day, I would have probably moved on but this came on the heels of weeks of Berniebros who seemed to stalk the internet looking for even the mildest criticism of their idol. First hint of even a question and they would pounce. Or perhaps I was just tired of the constant dripfeed of mansplaining and whitesplaining, both online and IRL. Without particular planning, I decided to embark on a social media experiment (do check that twitter thread as it outlines the parameters and concept). 

I decided to change my twitter profile photograph. From back in 2013, when I was harassed and abused systematically for nearly ten months, I already knew that when I had used a diving photograph - underwater, with a mask and regulator hiding my face - not only had gendered abuse dropped to zero but male 'experts' also assumed I was a man and approached me in a more collegial way. This time I wanted to see if non-human avatar would have a similar result, especially as quite a few feminist friends use similarly 'neutral' photographs for their profiles. 

Then a twitter friend suggested that Sunshine Mutt as my handle as that would also partly veil my racial/ethnic identity. Of course a closer look on twitter would still show my name but it was worth a test. 

Initially, and perhaps as a defense mechanism, I used this photograph. I found it secretly amusing as it is our young puppy, a female Rottweiler named Pixie (talk of subverting stereotypes!). 

Unsurprisingly albeit sadly the results were instantaneous. The change in photograph dropped sexualised and gendered interactions to zero instantly. Surprisingly, racialised interactions also dropped instantly. The change in handle took all sexualised, gendered, and racialised interaction to zero. Some discussion with women friends on twitter raised the additional possibility that perhaps a large dog, especially a Rottweiler, was being read as male. The next step seemed to test out (1) if this were true and (2) would a dog visually read as more 'femme' change the interactions. So next photograph was of our little Dachshund.

Through the changes, I kept tabs on the progress, posting and discussing the experiment on twitter regularly: I posted: 

1. after 24 hours. Zero harassment, abuse and microaggressions although my tweeting topics, opinions, language, all remained the same. 
2. 48 hours. Still zero. This was particularly interesting as I had posted and critiqued Bernie Sanders online but received not a single one of the usual pushback accounts. 
3. Even four days later, there had been zero racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions. This again was interesting as the Iowa primaries took place in this period and despite the 'coin' controversy, I got zero racialised, gendered, sexualised pushback. (The above links are for twitter threads and may be worth a read).

On the third day of the experiment, I switched my handle back to normal to see if the pushback was primarily racial or gendered, or whether race added an additional axis to gendered pushback. Despite the switch to a racially/ethnically identifiable handle, nothing changed. With the dog avi, I still got ZERO racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions.

Initially I had planned on switching back to my normal photograph and handle after 48 hours. But testing out various permutations meant that nearly a week went by. That's when I realised the full extent of the toll of the constant online microaggressions: I was so enjoying being read as a man, so relieved that I could express my opinions without fearing immediate condescension, aggression, abuse, that I really didn't want to change back to my normal photograph.  So instead I enjoyed the fake neutrality which is really the privilege of being perceived as a man for another few days. 

A week later, I finally switched my photograph to my own. And wouldn't you know, five minutes later, I was back to be being mansplained, patronised, abused, sealioned. 

Conclusion: the primary and first trigger for online harassment - as perhaps can be said also of IRL - is gender. My name can and is often read as male so I have experienced a sort of misplaced male privilege before (especially for book sales and professional correspondence but that is material for another blogpost).  So even after my name was visibly and clearly racially identifiable, I got no aggression. This chimes with experience of male friends who are continuously surprised that they can speak on the same topics (even express the same views) with absolutely no aggression at all. 

My theory is that gender is the primary - and universal - trigger for pushback. However, race when visibly identifiable becomes an additional target. Other axis of marginalisation - including sexuality, ability, class, age - also play a part to aggrevate the silencing and erasure. Yet gender - at least - in the past two weeks of my unscientific social media experiment emerges as the first and most obvious starting point. 

And then they say feminism is dead. Or not needed. Sigh!