That Time I Tweeted About #BlackGirlsAreMagic

Google image search for beauty. I hate this shit.

So I made a kerfluffle.

Let me first say this: #WhiteGirlsAreMagic is pure racist droff and should be dismissed out of hand. There, done.

My criticism of #BlackGirlsAreMagic is what got people up in arms, for being about more bullshit beauty norms. I do remember many months ago encountering a few really awesome stories that way, but when I looked at the hashtag today most of what I saw was fashion shots, sexualizing and boobs, boobs, boobs. I could storify sexy black women all day off that hashtag, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised that I could, and I don’t think it would make any great point. At its heart this is a conversation about ideas about intent, ownership, and founding in online spaces.

Many people talked about who founded the hashtag, but this concept is really fraught and confusing. How a hashtag performs in a community of people who follow each other is completely different from how it performs in another community, which means that from the outside, there’s no real founders intent embedded in any technical sense in a hashtag. That also means the hashtag will change significantly over time, and at certain times of day. #BlackGirlsAreMagic is probably very different to an education community than it is to a BDSM community, and very different during an academic decathlon and a June Friday night.

My tweet came from looking at #BlackGirlsAreMagic at that moment and having a familiar frustration with the idea that the sexualizing of women as what makes us magic. My experience wasn’t invalid, but it was tied to a moment which, due to the nature of social media, wasn’t available after that. Especially right after, as #BlackGirlsAreMagic became somewhat about my tweet. Social media being what it is, few people were supporting sexualizing black women as their sole value, they were correcting me on a factual point about the origin of #BlackGirlsAreMagic. Those who did so by suggesting that I had gotten something factually wrong, thanks for the consideration. Those who screamed insults about me making an apparent mistake, less thanks. Those who said it was because I’m ugly, whatever.

No one, but no one, said I was wrong on my basic point: that black women shouldn’t derive their self-worth from a specifically black beauty norm, so on that we’re all agreed.

My looking through the hashtag would suggest to me that #BlackGirlsAreMagic isn’t experienced the same way by different communities. Nor are the who-knows-how-many hashtags started by one community, then colonized by other groups, like Gamergate. Hashtags are’t spaces we can own. Hashtags only really work that way in memes (because we have low emotional investment), or in the short term, like breaking news. I suspect this is something Twitter is trying to address with new features. But for now, you can start a hashtag and watch it morph into a completely different thing in a wider public. And yes, if you look at #BlackGirlsAreMagic at the moment I am writing this, and you skip over the tweets about me, you can find black girl’s achievement in between a lot of boobs. That bothers me, because the idea what we do something good but BOOBS BOOBS BOOBS is what crushes many girls’ dreams of living a public life. The women who follow each other may or may not see the tag that way, because they may or may not look at that live flow. Even then we tend to look for what confirms how we see a hashtag, because that’s how human brains work. I saw a lot of images of boobs, and if you’d suggest this is because I like looking at boobs, you’re probably on to something there. But please don’t tell me boobs make women magic, even if I like looking at them.

For me, I want my daughter to believe Black Girls are Indeed Magic. I don’t want her to see black models are magic, and every once in a while, kids of color go to academic decathlons.

What’s interesting is that I can’t know what #BlackGirlsAreMagic is when you read this. If it’s a well of good news, all of this will sound silly. Like the black women who invented and often use the tag, my impression will seem like tilting at windmills — irrelevant and inaccurate. If it’s being used by racists in a massive coordinated fashion, it could be all murder shots and horrors, and you could be wondering why the hell I’m talking about beauty at all.

I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize the history of #BlackGirlsAreMagic in this moment, but I’m not wrong about how it can and does change over time and to different audiences. You can’t treat a hashtag like an archive, or a reliable broadcast method. And I wouldn’t be surprised if more #BlackGirlsAreMagic were about beauty norms as a response to the #WhiteGirlsAreMagic racist attack, since those were mostly fashion shots. But it’s important there to see even how another group attacking people online changes their expression often into something they didn’t intend. And frankly, once people start posting pictures of sexy women, in my experience it’s hard to get them to stop.

Here’s the heart of the matter: we can own a hashtag in a community, but we can’t own it a wider public sphere. It has a hashtag life of its own. The attempts to do that drive us into a rhetorical madhouse, which is why reasonable people said terrible things about me personally, a gesture which didn’t make a lot of sense if I had only made a factual mistake.

Where I probably have a more substantive disagreement with most people is the celebration of female physical beauty. Like the celebration of wealth, I’m not for it. If it was one factor, I wouldn’t be so bothered. If physical beauty was like being really good at chess or wearing blue all the time or knowing a lot about the Malian Empire I would be fine with it. The celebration of feminine beauty depresses me and puts me off, not just because I’m not a model, but because all the time women spend trying to make themselves prettier is time they never get back. That’s the hill I’ll die on — I don’t like beauty norms, anywhere, anytime.

Edit: I wanted to add that even when people got unhappy with me on Twitter, the conversation was so much more civil and not at all painful compared to most of the controversies I’ve generated talking about women or computer security. I’m thankful for that and feel like it’s a sign things are headed in the right direction.