We Shouldn’t Get Used To Online Abuse

I have spent the last three days talking about online abuse. More specifically, the abuse of Leslie Jones and other black women on Twitter. I’ve written essays, appeared on multiple radio broadcasts, fielded hundreds of questions and comments. I was getting ready to leave for yet another radio appearance to discuss online abuse when one of life’s shitty coincidences happened: my eight-year-old son burst into my room in tears due to online abuse.

My son has a small YouTube channel that he has lovingly put together all by himself. I didn’t even know it existed until he sent me a link to a video he created. The videos are what you would expect from a nerdy, creative eight-year-old: Minecraft, drawing contests, impromptu plays, and a little freestyle rap. He had 10 YouTube subscribers and his goal for 2016 was to get to 25. I’ve never promoted the channel (even though he really wants me to) because I know that the “trolls” who harass me regularly would love to have access to my children. He checks his channel on a regular basis, hoping for commentary or a new subscriber.

But when he checked his channel yesterday, after posting a boisterous and giggle-filled rap, he found a comment filled with vile insults — calling him, amongst other things, a “pussy nigger with no followers.” For an eight-year-old kid who’s lucky to get one comment a month, this was devastating.

Seeing my baby, my eight-year-old little boy, crying the way that only your first interaction with real racism can make you cry, broke me wide open. I receive that sort of hate every day — I have for years now. It is now a dull ache that never goes away, a weight that is always just heavy enough to let you know that you could move so much faster and freer without it. I power through the way many people of color do. I have no choice.

But I was once an eight-year-old kid who thought the world was full of wonder and possibility. I once was able to walk free, unaware of the burden of vile adult racism. But that all crashed down for me around age 10. My white friends continued to be able to live in a world of princesses and dragons and magic — I was called an “ugly nigger” by school kids shouting in unison from school bus windows. My son gets two years less than I did.

When I talked about my son’s encounter on Twitter, many people were saddened and angry for my son. But many were also completely unsympathetic.

“Tell your kid to toughen up,” some said.

“This is just the way the world is.”

“If he can’t handle hate, you shouldn’t allow him on the internet.”

These comments are very similar to the ones that I have received these last few days that I’ve been talking about abuse on Twitter. These comments are very similar to ones that practically all women, people of color, LGBT people, and disabled people receive when they discuss the abuse they receive online.

But the fact that we would say such things in response to the racist abuse of an eight-year-old child shows the danger of the entire “just ignore it” argument. When we “just ignore” abuse, we normalize it. This does not make abusers go away. No matter what your parents told you when you were a child, these are not playground bullies who will get bored when they don’t get a response from you. The visible act of hate is enough, the imagined response is enough, the high-fives from their buddies is enough.

Normalizing the regular use of racial slurs, gendered abuse, rape threats, and other violent language aimed at individuals does not immunize us to the harmful effects of racism, sexism, and violence. All it does is embolden further actions of hate. When telling someone that you hope they get raped fails to shock, you don’t give up, you push further. And as we normalize this language, we normalize the behavior that goes along with it.

It is not hard to see that a society that tells us to just “get over” being called an “ape nigger” because it’s “just the internet” would also be perfectly fine telling us to “get over” slavery because it’s “in the past” and to “get over” the murder of black people by cops because “they should have complied.” It is not hard to see that a society that tells us to “get over” being told that someone hopes we “are raped to death” because it’s “just the internet” would also be perfectly fine telling rape victims to “get over” their rapes because it’s just “boys being boys.”

My child deserves to be a child, and instead of trying to beat that wonder and joy out of him, we should be fighting to protect it — for him and every other child of color whose childhood is cut short by this racist society. We decide what we want this world to be, and we fight for that vision. So when you say that we should “just get used to” abuse — what vision are you fighting for?

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Lead image: flickr/seiichi.nojima

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