There’s not too much that I can add to the criticism of this Gizmodo post by Joel Johnson, “Why I Stalk A Sexy Black Woman on Twitter (And You Should Too!)” that hasn’t been said better by my friends Ann Friedman, Deanna Zandt, and Shani Hilton. And since Johnson’s followup post shows that they didn’t convince him of much of anything, I don’t know that I’ll make much of a dent either. And maybe this doesn’t merit a response.
I’ll try anyway, because I think this is one of those rare times when a white male really needs to speak up. As a white dude, I say: Joel Johnson, you are wrong and they are right, and you need to shut up and listen to them.
Let’s talk about authority. We white males have never not had it, our entire lives, to the point where we don’t realize it. Every movie, every governing body, every focus group, and every office includes us — whereas all other folks need special laws to keep them in the loop, amirite? So we must be pretty damn valuable. We’re socialized to believe that we know what we’re talking about (and when we don’t, that there are no wrong answers), and we’re not socialized to spend much time thinking about anyone else — because, in general, we don’t need to check in with anyone else.
Ann, Deanna, and Shani all pretty much said that Johnson’s intentions were noble — that admitting the shortcomings of your social circle is good, that cultural curiosity is good, and that public posts on Twitter are fair game for reading. Johnson doesn’t really acknowledge this, and instead makes the points again himself. Fine.
Joel then says that he’s being ‘attacked’ by Ann when she comments on his hairstyle, something she’s clearly doing to mirror his behavior toward his Twitter-stalkee. He also says that he’s being ‘othered’ when Ann facetiously lumps him in with other white tech writers. Black women have been othered, with real ramifications; look at welfare law. Othering white tech writers has never had ramifications beyond a company softball game. As Ann would point out, turnabout isn’t fair play in this case, because you can’t have fair play in either direction on an unlevel playing field.
Johnson says of his one-way anonymous interaction is just how Twitter works — fine — but continues that “honestly, it seems far, far creepier if I had tried to befriend her personally.” Really? How do you know? Did you try it? Or do you just know that a Black Christian woman from Detroit is unwilling to pursue a friendship with you, and would be creeped out by the prospect? Or maybe you assume she’s following you already, since you write for Gizmodo. Or maybe it just never crossed your mind, because you never had to think about it before. Or maybe you don’t think women are interested in you in general, and fuck dude, you just don’t get them.
But don’t let me assume. How’d you arrive at this conclusion, on how to interact least creepily with your stalkee, without ever consulting her? (I realize that it wouldn’t be ‘stalking’ if you talked to her. Not a good argument.)
Most grossly is how Johnson addresses Shani in his rebuttal. Shani, yes, is a Black Female Internet Friend of mine. I also read everything that she writes (and you should too). And I was honored when Johnson used one passive-aggressive tweet to zing both of us. (My twitter icon is Tyra Banks, so insert joke here.)
What happened is this: Shani took time out of her day to dedicate a blog post to Johnson. She’s got things to do, but she saw a teachable moment, maybe for him, maybe for us readers. Shani looked him right in the eye and said: I understand everything you’ve said, and as a Black woman, it creeps the shit out of me. You’re wrong to do it.
And Joel Johnson held her gaze and said: No. You’re wrong. I know more than you do about how Black women like you should feel, and I know whether or not it’s important.
This is the absolute core of my problem with Joel Johnson’s rebuttal: he sees no authority other than his own. As a human being and as Shani’s friend, that sickens me. But as a white male, I just can’t brook it, because I know — I’ve never not known — exactly the authority from which he speaks.
For the last two years, I’ve worked for a news and research outfit that covers policy and culture through a race lens, and I have the good fortune to have a great number of coworkers and colleagues of color. And I love my job, because it makes me feel stupid. Feeling stupid means that I’m learning things — about race, about sexual identity, about unread history books, about laws, about jokes, about the gender of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I learn something literally every day.
I also know that I’ve said shit every bit as dumb as what Joel’s said, just as obliviously (but hopefully not on the archiveable internet), and I’ve clenched onto it just as gaspingly. I know, absolutely, where he’s coming from, and I’ve felt that hot sting of realizing that I’m wrong, and that I don’t know everything. It sucks.
I also know that if I got tired of feeling stupid — if it just stung too much, or if people called me too many names on Twitter — I could walk away from it at any time, get a job at a tech website, and never really think about any of it again. Real talk — such is my privilege as a white dude. In my world, I opt into race.
So like I said, I won’t pretend that I can speak to this better than my friends who do this as a vocation, and who don’t have the option of stepping outside race and gender. I feel comfortable saying this much, though: Yes, Joel Johnson, white dudes need to be in on the conversation about race and gender. Yes, differences should be celebrated. No, saying ‘race’ doesn’t make you a racist. (Nobody’s argued that, despite your commenters.) But we white dudes need to understand that we’re finally joining a conversation that’s been in progress without us for a very long time. It’s not going to kill us to leave our authority at the door this once, to be an ally instead of a protagonist, and to shut up and listen.
Actually, before you shut up, you should say thank you to Ann, Shani, and Deanna. Seriously. Money couldn’t buy that kind of personalized critical beatdown from three of the best minds in the business.
Addendum: You know what I did when I wanted to learn more about the Black Experience? I added PostBourgie to my rss feeds. It’s no less authentically Black than Twitter, and they post music videos.
Another addendum: Maybe the reason Deanna put your post in context using sections of Share This! is that they already address statements like yours perfectly, and you’re not a unique snowflake.