Today, I will reflect on the commenting policy that covers my various blogs and social media. In a nutshell, my policy says: 1) discuss sociology; 2) be polite; 3) stay on topic; and 4) be aware of your own bias. I rarely acknowledge individual abuse that comes my way and I delete the majority of abusive comments I receive on my blog, and I block and report abuse on my social media. Periodically, I will discuss broad patterns of these comments on Twitter, using the hashtag #SocModeration (standing for ‘sociology moderation’). This allows me to reflect on the personal costs of what it means for me, a minority woman, to battle racism and sexism online while writing about the sociology of inequality. At the same time, not publishing abuse on my actual blog keeps my ‘home’ welcoming for my key audience: primarily other women of colour and anyone else who respects minorities.
People who come to my blogs to hurl abuse see sexism and racism as insults and as subjective ideas that can be rejected. I discuss how the concept of White male privilege dislocates this individual perspective on discrimination. I end by arguing that, despite the problems I face, public outreach is important. It’s something that sociologists and other scientists can be, and should be, battling together.
We don’t condone interpersonal violence face to face. We can’t be complicit on this culture online. The scientific community needs to take a collective stance against silencing minorities and White women from participating in public discussions. Let’s not allow the normalisation of abuse online. People who are already underrepresented should not expect to be subject to harassment simply because we write about inequality. We should expect to feel safe in leading public debates on education, science and social justice.
Most of my writing is on race and gender inequality. I invariably get random comments from the public on my blogs saying that I’m racist for writing about racism or sexist for writing about gender inequality. I’m also treated to a host of expletives or pseudo intellectual insults. Once a man who wrote me a long essay saying that evolution shows women have smaller intellectual capacity than men so my arguments were invalid. That was in response to a post I wrote about the gender symbolism of the Sistine Chapel. Most recently someone called me a racist idiot for an old post I wrote about the social construction of race in anime cartoons.
I never allow hate speech on my blogs, so I don’t allow these tirades to be printed on my social media. But trust me, I report them when I can and they are there for me to see in the back-end of my blogs: long, defensive, angry and gross comments that never engage with the content of what I’ve written, nor the scientific evidence I present.
Notice that my posts are never about calling individuals racist/sexist. They’re not opinion pieces. My posts focus on scientific research of societal processes and social issues. Women sometimes disagree with my posts, which is fine – disagreement is not the same as personal attacks. The vitriolic and belligerent comments saying I’m racist/sexist are, primarily, from men representing White male privilege.
White Male Privilege
Both racism and sexism describe discourses and practices that maintain sexist, racist, cisgender, ableist and heterosexist balance of power society. This includes everything from everyday interactions, to the social organisation of society. White men’s socialisation teaches them to think that their life experiences are the default universal position.
American sociologist Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as an “invisible knapsack” or a special bag of benefits that White people (of all genders) can take for granted as they go about their daily lives without harassment, fear, stigma or discrimination due to their race. This includes:
- Being able to hang out with people of the same race and gender in all social contexts, including while at work.
- Having access to affordable housing in a neighbourhood where neighbours will be “neutral or pleasant.”
- Being able to shop and travel in public places without being followed.
- Finding people from the same race in the news and media in a range of roles, and not just tainted with criminal overtones.
- Dressing and behaving however one pleases without these choices being seen as a reflection of one’s racial and gender group.
- Speaking to people in authority positions (such as police, teachers and employers) who are of the same race and gender.
White male privilege is not negated by the personal hardships that individual White men face. Everyone has personal problems. Individual men often balk at this idea. They don’t see that they have any special benefits. Subjective views on inequality do not negate that society is structured in a way that benefits some groups over others. Some men get angry thinking that this concept says all men are evil or that they are sexist or racist. Again, this is not about how you see yourself as a person; it is about the social processes that support inequality. White male privilege ensures that the taken for granted benefits of gender and race don’t result in wider discrimination.
Consequences of racism and sexism
Racism and sexism describe systems of institutional oppression. These concepts refer to the inequity and life chances that stem from racial and gender relations. These are not insults to be flung at someone who is analysing social inequality. For example, using racism as an insult takes an individual perspective on institutional oppression. It turns racism into the property of individuals that may be subjectively defended (“I don’t think this is racist!”). It therefore denies the social processes that support discrimination at work, school, the criminal justice system, in public spaces and in private life.
The decision to publish about racism, sexism and other forms of social injustice may not be surprising given I’m a sociologist. I have researched and published on these issues. I have taught these subjects at university. I have also conducted research on these matters for social policy when I worked in public service. Yet most of this work was for “internal” audiences, in the case of academia, and for semi-public policy audiences. Until I increased my social media, my academic papers were sitting behind a paywall or delivered at academic conferences. I’m glad more of my work is public now. Yet publishing on these issues for public audiences, via my blogs and social media, has come at a price. I am expected to put up with public abuse.
The Personal Costs of Harassment
I identify as a woman of colour, and more specifically as a migrant-Australian and Latin-Australian woman. The abuse I face publishing about these issues for public audiences carries an additional personal weight, as this abuse echoes the discrimination I have faced throughout my life. Racism and sexism happens in academia and in public service, but it is not expected, condoned or thought of as just “part of the job.” The law is explicit: I shouldn’t go to work expecting abuse. (Fighting workplace discrimination and harassment at work is another matter.)
Just as it’s unacceptable to allow racism, sexism and other hate speech for any public or private interaction, it is not okay to normalise this discrimination as part of blogging, social media and other public science outreach.
While in the past I deliberated leaving abusive comments on my blogs to show the belligerence of those people, I reflected on the impact of engaging with this abuse. Not only does it come at a personal cost to me, it only incites the abuser to continue thinking it’s okay to keep hurling insults. They aren’t there to engage with my arguments by reflecting on the research I present. They are there to hurt me and to try to silence me into not speaking out on these issues. They bank on other high-profile cases of women who have been abused (e.g. Anita Sarkeesian) or otherwise bullied out of public engagement.
Ultimately, I don’t allow these posts because these people want to use me to amplify their social privilege. My writing angers them because they don’t like having their social position questioned. The very fact that sociology threatens their privilege shows that sociological practices of women of colour (and in other sciences) are important to undoing White male privilege.
Keeping this sociology behind closed doors of academia is a disservice. There are important voices in public sociology, such as Dr Tressie McMillan Cottom, but we need more women of colour sociologists to shift public debates. I’ve tried to encourage other Australian sociologists to join me on social media but they say they are scared of having to face abuse. It’s certainly not pleasant. But writing about sociology for public consumption helps to break down the normalcy of sexism and racism. Talking about how to better manage this abuse is important. Abuse has real consequences. For me, I’ve had to manage how I feel about reading comments that remind me of the abuse and social exclusion I’ve faced my entire life.
In other cases, the threat is more immediate. In a recent example, Dr V, a transgender woman inventor, was ‘outed’ by a journalist and she died by suicide as a result. In another example, Dr Isis, an anonymous science blogger, was identified by Henry Gee, a senior male publisher on the high-profile Nature magazine. Isis writes:
I have undoubtedly been vocal over the last four years of the fact that I believe Nature, the flagship of our profession, does not have a strong track record of treating women fairly. I believe that Henry Gee, a representative of the journal, is responsible for some of that culture. That’s not “vitriolic” and it’s not “bullying”. That is me saying, as a woman, that there is something wrong with how this journal and its editors engage 50% of the population (or 20% of scientists) and I believe in my right to say “this is not ‘ok’.” Henry Gee responded by skywriting my real name because he believed that would hurt me personally – my career, my safety, my family. [My emphasis]
The connection I see between these cases is about gender violence: if you threaten or deny the requests of privileged men, they will use social media to destroy your personal life. There are therefore major issues of privacy and safety for women on social media.
The idea that we should refrain from doing public science because of the threat of abuse is a public problem that requires collective action.
I hope that more sociologists will join the public sociology effort. We have voluminous papers on how to do public sociology and not enough of us doing it in Australia on social media. The abuse is something we can collective address and support one another on. The questions we should collaborate on include:
- How can we help increase women’ safety online?
- How can we pool together our efforts? How can our discipline better support us?
- How can we contribute to cross-disciplinary action?
If you have ideas on these questions or other thoughts, please share these below!
NEW: Check out my resource to address public harassment of scholars.