Perspective: When ‘Black Twitter’ sounds like ‘White Twitter’

Rapper Tyga, a cast member in "Dope," poses at the premiere of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival this June in Los Angeles.

Rapper Tyga, a cast member in “Dope,” poses at the premiere of the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival this June in Los Angeles.

(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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Tyga, a rapper best known for his 2011 hit “Rack City,” is fighting allegations of an affair with a porn actress. Last week, a gossip site posted images of text messages between the two and nude pictures of Tyga, and as expected, Black Twitter has been all over it. But because the actress in question is a transgender woman, a lot of the reactions online have been pretty vile.

Tyga was a trending topic on Twitter for most of the week, and anyone following it would see a flurry of homophobic and transphobic slurs. One popular tweeter wrote that Tyga didn’t know the difference “between a tranny and an [actual] woman.”

As transgender rights activist Janet Mock explained in a video essay, Tyga is being shamed for allegedly loving an “unnatural” woman and Isabella is being shamed for existing. Not everyone doing this was black. But it was Black Twitter, the active community on the platform that is most in tune with hip-hop music culture, that led the charge.


That’s not the face of Black Twitter the media fawns over in articles with headlines like “Black Twitter Flexing Muscles On and Offline.” The phrase “Black Twitter” itself is a little strange because the community has plenty of non-black participants, but we insist on calling it black. And according to Pew Research Center, 61% of Twitter users are white – but we never call that segment “White Twitter.” The label seems to have stuck, though, and most reporting on Black Twitter shows the community being one of two things: funny or progressive (sometimes both). But there seems to be a disconnect between that coverage and Black Twitter’s negative (if brief) fixation on Tyga. Here’s a representative tweet:

How can we reconcile this with our view of Black Twitter as a unified collective of progressive people who enjoy jokes and social justice?

That was a trick question. We can’t.

Black Twitter, like every other online community, is a diverse and tangled mess of opinions. We would be doing the community an injustice if we pretended otherwise. In other words, Black Twitter looks an awful lot like White Twitter.

And just like White Twitter, Black Twitter does have a vocal minority that actively pushes back against all kinds of bias. On Sunday, Robert Jones Jr., who tweets as @SonofBaldwin, wrote a series of angry tweets about Black Twitter members who “support” Bill Cosby, despite the release of a 2005 deposition in which Cosby admitted to obtaining drugs to give to women he wanted to have sex with.

This is exactly what Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, has been fighting for the last two years. Last year, she wrote that many people only seem to pay attention to certain “charismatic black men,” leaving “sisters, queer, trans, and disabled [black] folk [to] take up roles in the background.”

Both of these activists are knee-deep in a discussion that has plagued social justice movements for decades: the question of who, if anyone, should be “first in line” for equal rights. On Black Twitter – as in mainstream America – straight men usually come first. When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide nearly three weeks ago, some Black Twitter users asked when it would be legal to be black. Some people meant this as a tongue-in-cheek joke. For others, it was an accusation: that rights for white gay people come at the expense of all black people.


But on the other hand, plenty of Black Twitter users reject the idea that gay rights and black rights are mutually exclusive. Black Twitter rarely agrees with itself, which is only fair, because we don’t expect White Twitter to make up its mind about anything either. So if we’re going to praise Black Twitter as a community that pushes us forward, then we have to also recognize when it takes a step back.

Following the conversations on Black Twitter? Hit me up at @dexdigi.