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On Being a Black Woman on the Internet

Back in February of this year, it was announced that Jon Stewart would be retiring as the host of the parody news show The Daily Show. But in this ridiculous age of deplorable media bias, is a parody of a caricature of a news network really a parody? That sad rhetorical question aside, this left a lot of us wondering: Who will host The Daily Show? Names were thrown out – from Amy Poehler to Amy Schumer, and Jason Jones to Aziz Ansari. And then there was a Conan-like cult obsession with Jessica Williams. J. Willy, as I call my best friend in my head, is also the Senior Beyoncé Correspondent on The Daily Show so there wasn’t likely to be anyone who found her unqualified. Except Ms. Williams herself.  Being a Black woman on the internet is a peculiar experience.  Jessica Williams’ tweets and the replies in response to her self-assessment that she was under-qualified is an excellent case study in that experience. Readers feel entitled to you, your time, and your brain – even to the point of attempting to “correct” your opinion. I get why Jessica Williams has been on (what seems like) a hiatus. 

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So far, so good. Her fans are understandably a little bummed that they won’t get to see her host The Daily Show and Williams responded with an understandable (but not required) explanation. Then things take a disastrous turn. But, why am I telling you about something that happened months ago which, with our ephemeral attention spans, feels like it happened a decade ago?
I recently wrote two very dope pieces, if I may say so myself. The first digs into Kendrick Lamar’s latest album To Pimp a Butterfly as a thesis on the state of Black America in 2015. The second, and most controversial, reported on Boston University’s  reaction to Professor Saida Grundy. Reader response to the former was pretty awesome. People liked it and, more importantly, they appreciated the album more after the article helped them understand it. The response to the latter? Scary. And Jessica Williams’ experience on twitter perfectly illustrates what I had to deal with.
I made the case that a (white male) undergraduate at some other university declaring that the remarks of a (black female) professor of sociology racist, was the real act of racism.  The entitlement that young man must have felt to make that kind of statement is jarring. The article also takes the stance that Boston University’s president Robert A. Brown essentially declared that the university cared more about a few white male tears than it did about the many students and faculty who stood in solidarity with Dr. Saida Grundy.  At Boston University’s commencement this past weekend, student speaker Leah Hong asked those who recognize the truth in Dr. Grundy’s comments to stand as she took a photo from the podium. The response was overwhelmingly supportive. 
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But when you write about race on the internet, you’re bound to encounter some racists. I was never naive to that. I’ve read articles on it, heard about experiences, had some of my own, and, of course, saw it happen to Jessica Williams. And still I wasn’t quite ready for people to question the very basis of the article. Disagree, sure. But commenters demanding that I “define race” without trying to engage? The aggressive demand of my labor, my time, and my engagement?  Blocking someone on twitter for spamming me or otherwise making my experience unenjoyable (because I really don’t have to provide a deep reason for removing someone from my social network) just to have them email me their even more detailed thoughts? Unprepared.
Here’s the thing about that. When you move a conversation from an article’s comment section to twitter and then to email  (or any other medium) after being forcefully removed from the previous space, you are harassing someone. They have declared, without any ambiguity, that they do not want to interact with you. By continuing to force your opinion into their space, and ignoring the boundaries they have established, you are behaving as though you feel you are entitled to an interaction and probably an explanation. Well, in the words of my second favorite president, Francis Underwood, “You are entitled to nothing”.
This behavior isn’t solely characteristic of ignorant faceless racists on the internet. After the article made its rounds, outlets started to contact me to write and friends started throwing up alley oops to connect me with editors. One (black male) editor, in response to me enthusiastically declaring that I write whenever I’m excited or angry, suggested I take medication to correct that level of fervor. 
Which brings us back to Jessica Williams. A (white female) reader noted that it was “sad” that Williams said she’s under-qualified. To this, Williams replied, “it’s not sad. There is strength in this… This is for me. And that’s my feminism.”
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Another (white female) reader asked if maybe Jessica Williams just didn’t know the qualifications for the job that she had just said she was under-qualified for. Spoiler alert: she did know.
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We went from Williams graciously declining that she was qualified for the position to people making judgment values on her decision and even questioning if she understood what was happening.  But it somehow gets even more offensive. A (white female) writer wrote an entire article on why Jessica Williams made the wrong decision for Jessica Williams – “Why @msjwilly needs the biggest best Lean In group ever”.  And even used the ostensibly supportive “lean in” phrase that’s been pretty popular.  That’s pretty… insane.  The temerity it takes to insist someone you don’t know needs an intervention because they accurately assessed their skills is quite unfathomable to me. 
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Whether it’s racist commenters on a blog, purportedly decent/respectable editors, a random student, or fans, you are not entitled to Black women. You aren’t entitled to an explanation from us. You aren’t entitled to an education from us. You aren’t entitled to our energy.

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