The New Barbershop

White People Should Read Black Twitter

Black people have always talked to each other, of course. What’s different now is that the white folk can eavesdrop. It gets interesting.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Recently, the Los Angeles Times made what many people might consider a pretty astonishing decision, especially in this age of layoffs and buyouts and fewer and fewer reporters. It hired a full-time reporter to cover Twitter. No, check that. Not Twitter. The paper hired a full-time reporter just to cover Black Twitter.

For the uninitiated, Black Twitter isn’t some organized effort. There is no central organizing apparatus of Black Twitter that is coordinating hashtags. There is no mission statement, and there is no clearly defined purpose. It is simply black Americans talking to one another about what matters most to them. But what makes it new is that all of this is occurring within an environment where non-black voices can overhear the conversations.

Objectively speaking, there is nothing exceptional about Black Twitter. It is a coming together of African-Americans on a social media platform to discuss what matters to them, sometimes silly and sometimes serious.

Following the terrorist attack by Dylann Roof at Emanuel AME Church and the ensuing controversy about the Confederate battle flag, the hashtag #TakeItDown was created by Black Twitter participant @lifeandmorelife. In a single day—and a fateful day, since it was June 19, or “Juneteenth”—the #TakeItDown hashtag was mentioned 17,000 times, and eventually it crossed over to the larger Twitter community and began to sway national opinion.

Following the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black Americans by the hands of the police, Black Twitter users felt empowered enough to voice their anger and create hashtags to rally support. The end result of these efforts has not been as clear-cut as the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse, but even so, all of it helps foster a community that encourages positive social change.

And yet Black Twitter clearly is not only a movement primarily focused on social change, and the equal representation of comical hashtags displays this nuance. For every #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, there is a #ButThatsNoneOfMyBusiness, #LeBroning and #TweetLikeJadenSmith.

All this reminds me of the daily conversations I would have with my family within the comfort of our home. I grew up in a fairly integrated, yet conservative community in Georgia, and I have always had friends of various nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. My parents encouraged me to embrace the benefits of diversity while never neglecting my black culture, yet within the comfort of our home we had a greater license to talk about the absurdity of mainstream white American culture. When my white friends would visit my house, my family and I all collectively reined in our comical “white people are crazy” comments. We knew this comment could offend even though it was always said in jest.

We also refrained from actively commenting about possible injustices in media coverage regarding crime and what constituted news. If news coverage was devoted to a missing white child we would understand the tragedy of the event, but we’d also openly wonder if the same concern would be afforded to a missing black child.

We had to live in that community, and the last thing we wanted to do was accidentally offend the white folks who surrounded us. The smarter strategy was always to voice these perspectives within the comfort of a predominantly black environment: your house, a primarily black lunch table in school, the barbershop, church, etc.

There needed to be a refuge where we could express the absurdity and discrepancies of the world around us, and to do so we needed to be beyond the earshot of our white neighbors. If we wanted to create positive change we needed to build support within the black community and hope that our message could have crossover appeal to the larger white community.

Black Twitter is a social media extension of this conversational structure yet it is all being conducted within earshot or hashtag reach of America’s non-black communities.

Black Twitter participant Vann Newkirk (@fivefifths) recently described to the National Journal how the influx of non-black observers and participants into Black Twitter has resulted in high-context and low-context discourse within the growing social media community. High-context are the mostly black users who understand the slang and can express their perspectives using fewer characters, while low-context users require more explanatory tweets.

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This is revelatory because it brings to light different thoughts and perspectives of American identity to a larger swath of Americans. It also presents a concerted effort to inform those outside of the community of perspectives and discourse that thrives within.

Yet the excitement surrounding the growth of Black Twitter at the same time shows how black thought has been structurally suppressed throughout American society.

Historically, the false negative stigmas that have been associated with black life, ranging from poverty to crime to an inherent savagery originating from Africa, have resulting in a concerted effort to discredit the importance of black life and by extension black thought and communication.

Black thought is not dominated by an innate foreign or non-American perspective. The black community does not frequently discusses the ways to merge a foreign with a domestic culture during a quest to assimilate in a foreign land that many immigrant communities face. The conversation is about figuring out a way to express the structural injustices of American life, the comical differences in perspective that can be informative and beneficial for America at large, and the slang that has emerged from within the black community.

For as long as I can recall the desire has always been to find a safe haven where we all can voice our opinions without the threat of persecution and a diminished quality of life. Few black Americans had the opportunity to speak in the public square.

Black Twitter is an expression of that opportunity. It is a reminder that black thought matters too. Openly speaking your mind and being part of a peaceful community of likeminded individuals is an integral component of a healthy democratic society. The fascination with Black Twitter is a troubling revelation because black Americans openly engaging in normal conversations within and not apart from a larger community should not be a groundbreaking reality. Recognizing, understanding and bridging this cultural divide is a step in the right direction, even if it is only 140 characters at a time.