To say my post “Why I Stalk a Sexy Black Woman on Twitter (And Why You Should Too)” provoked a response would be putting it lightly.
While quite a few people seemed to grasp the thrust of the piece – “You should follow a few people on Twitter who aren’t like you” – several others got caught up issues of race, sex, voyeurism and the “proper” use of Twitter itself. While there were some good discussions in the post’s comments, others gave their take on Twitter, their own blogs and, in a couple of instances, via email. (To the person who asked that I check myself into a suicide prevention centre: I think I’ll risk weathering my great spiritual malaise at home under the watchful eye of Dr Liquor.)
Regrets, I’ve had…well, one
If I have any regret about the piece, it’s that I didn’t title it “Why I Stalk A Sexy Black Christian Woman from Detroit (etc)”. It would probably have underlined the predominant differences that made this woman intriguing to me more clearly. I considered it, but thought it was too awkward. Moreover it didn’t accurately reflect the reason I first chose to follow the specific person I did. I discovered her responding to a Trending Topic populated mostly by black people, so it would be fair to say I noticed her race first. That she was good looking was a close second. Since my goal at the time was simply to follow someone random who seemed to be from a different culture – racially, socially, locationally – that was good enough.
The lives of others
There’s been a lot of talk about me “othering” this woman. Frankly: duh. I posit that it is impossible not to recognise any random person as an “other” by default. That’s how we perceive new people, no matter how much you want to conflate a precept of Hegelian perception with some sort of discrimination.
But when my stated goal was to pay enough attention to this random “other” to learn more about them – to gain a little bit of fidelity about them as an individual – attempting to pigeonhole me with that accusation is weak. Especially when some stumble over the same thing they’re trying to condemn, as Ann Friedman did in her post “How to win black ‘friends’ and influence people on the internet” when she writes, “You’re probably thinking, what’s the big deal? He sounds like every other tech-writer dude on the Internet.” I do believe I’ve just been othered.
But I can forgive Friedman’s rhetorical misstep, if only because it highlights exactly how our sorting primate brains work: Since it’s impossible to know the billions of individuals on this planet, it is only natural that we sort people into broad categories. It’s from categories that stereotypes, accurate or otherwise, can form. It’s not anyone’s duty to try to wipe out generalisations entirely – I’d argue that it is impossible unless one is suggesting the cultivation of a form of wilful autism – but to instead to pay attention to what make individual people unique, to acknowledge that they share qualities with others in their overlapping demographic while working towards viewing them as themselves first, their “categories” second.
Every tweet you take
Which leads to another denunciation levied: that if I really wanted to get to know this woman, I should have interacted with her instead of just voyeuristically following her Twitter stream. That’s fair – but only if you presume that I actually wanted to befriend her. I didn’t!
If that feels creepy and clinical to you, it’s because it is – but it’s also the very nature of the modern internet. And honestly, it seems far, far creepier if I had tried to befriend her personally. Shani O. Hilton writes on Postbourgie, “That woman he follows is not a person to him, she’s a creature in the internet zoo, and it makes me shudder to think that there are more people out there like him.”
Well…yes. You’ve been on Twitter, haven’t you, @shani_o? It’s a website where people post things they choose to display to the public, including – unless one has a perfect follower-to-follows ratio or a private account – several people you don’t know at all who choose to pay attention to your life, your thoughts, and whatever else you choose to share.
Rather than worry that I might be viewed as a sociopath for using Twitter exactly in the way for which it was designed, I choose to instead be excited about all the new people and perspectives that are right at my eyeballs’ fingertips. But that doesn’t mean I want – or am even capable of – becoming fast friends with every single person I observe (or read, or watch, or whatever) on the internet. No one does – except for creepy people.
If finding a black woman sexy is wrong…
Some antagonistic responses to the piece spent a lot of time constructing ornate deconstructions of things I never actually said. Many used the term “exoticisation” after I acknowledged that I found this particular woman attractive. A few said I had a “black fetish”, as if that were damning in and of itself.
Sorry to disappoint, but I copped to nothing of the sort. It may be a clichéd, horndog thing to say, but if I have a fetish, it’s a woman fetish. There’s nothing the least bit “privileged” about looking at a picture that someone’s put online and saying, “Yup. She’s hot.” If you disagree you must find the grocery checkout magazine racks harrowing, let alone spending time around actual human beings. And to toss around a term like “privilege” because a white male mentioned that he found a black female attractive is a serious depreciation of circumstance.
Race to the bottom
Then why mention her race? Because it matters. To pretend otherwise is childish, just as to presume it matters a lot is equally wrongheaded.
The more adjectives used to describe someone, the more (potentially) accurate that description is. Use less descriptors and we’re back into Category Land. There’s a reason I described her as a “sexy black woman” – because it was important to me to be unashamed to note that those were the qualities I noticed first.
I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, nor that it’s incontrovertibly essential to my neurological instincts to notice race and gender first. Maybe it’s an entirely culturally inculcated response. But to pretend that I don’t notice race and gender as my primary human pattern recognition process seems like a big, fat lie for the sake of useless propriety.
Bust my balls when I take antagonistic actions or form inaccurate opinions about someone just from a cursory impression – not simply for labelling someone. Otherwise where does it end? Should I be ashamed to notice gender? Sexual attractiveness? Species? It’s sexy, black turtles all the way down.
Would it be fair to judge all black people from one woman’s tweeting? No. How about all young black women? Of course not. How about all young black Christian women from Detroit? Well, maybe a little.
The larger your sample set, the higher the likelihood of accuracy – but that doesn’t stop a person from forming ideas right from the start with only a single reference.
This particular woman was very open with her sexuality, despite being a Christian. It made me question if that had to do with her race, with her local civic culture, or with her own peer group and family. I simply acknowledged the possibility of one or all of those things – including that the premise itself was out of whack, and that many Christians are more open about sex than I realised – as well as the possibility that this woman was just a lone outlier.
Try as I might, I can’t find any reason why proposing those questions is wrong. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that that process of winnowing down theories is exactly how we come to better discern individuals and their quirks from groups.
“I know what you’re saying, but the execution is clumsy” is pretending to be stupid. I’ve had that fight before when writing about race, power or gender issues. It boils down to, “You’re fine, but you have a social responsibility to encode what you say so that actually awful racist people can’t interpret it in a way that supports their beliefs.” If you say so – but I’d rather just say that some of this stuff is mushy, that my opinions are mutable, and slog ahead.
I considered couching the post in a bunch of typical context about my experiences, the people very similar to the woman I followed that I know personally – all the typical caveats. I’m glad I didn’t. I might have been more able to get my point across to a wider audience, but I feel like those who reacted the most strongly from their preconceptions – about this “white dork”, as I gave you in my only clue – are the people who would benefit most from taking a breath and asking why their own presumptions about me were concrete enough to levy accusations of racism and privilege and (how dare they!) sloppy writing.
(That’s right. I’m saying it’s you. But we can talk about it! You can even secretly think I’m a creepy, racist, misogynist avatar of the patriarchy. I’d just prefer you not start by calling me an ignorant racist because I mentioned a person’s race. Instead, compliment my hair.)
I used “stalk” ironically in an attempt to wink my way past accusations of just that very thing. “I totally stalked her!” he said, non-stalkingly. While I believe that absolutely nothing on earth is off limits for a joke, I can understand how, if you only read the title of the post, you might not get the irony. That probably makes it an awesome headline by “getting you to click on this story” standards, but admittedly does set some more literal people on guard. Fair point to “stalk” critics.