Black Twitter: ‘Challenging white mainstream hegemony’

SA woke up over the weekend to the fallout of what Twitter user Kay Sexwale called Ntsiki Mazwai’s “slut shaming” of women in the ANC Youth League.

In a spirited morning rant, performance poet Mazwai called female supporters of the ANCYL “idiots” as the ANC was only interested in their panties.

A few days earlier, while the entire country was cracking on #CliveNaidoo, who took to Facebook and then Twitter to explain his side of the tussle with a Metro Police officer, Azealia Banks took down Donald Trump in a short, sharp tweet.

Avid Twitter user Nomalanga Mhkize retweeted tweets on both topics last week, highlighting black Twitter to be something of a global home for the black agenda.

A detractor of the term, African-American activist Kimberley Ellis says attempts to portray black Twitter use as monolithic displays a lack of understanding about black people’s humanity. “For us, Twitter is an electronic medium that allows enough flexibility for uninhibited and unfabricated creativity while exhibiting more of the strengths of social media that allow us to build community,” she wrote on her blog

Mkhize says journalists’ obsession with black Twitter can be upsetting, especially when whiteness remains invisible in how it operates to set the agenda and frameworks of thought. 

“People feel that with journalists’ obsession with black Twitter, there’s a reproduction of a long history of black people being made the subject of research, being made exotic, being made ‘other’ by virtue of constantly being studied. Who is asking questions about ‘white Twitter’, its racism, its enclavism? Who is asking why white people feel more bold to troll violently, racistly online? Who is examining the violent misogynist trolling of white men online towards white feminists? White people’s behaviour gets to escape being ‘racialised’.”

While African-American cultural practices such as signifying [of which the hashtag #UnathiBeLike is a classic example] have influenced contemporary Twitter use tremendously, the dialogue across the diaspora is still sometimes dictated to by geography.

Siphumelele Zondi, a senior producer and creator of SABC tech show Network, says issues such as police brutality, which has since sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and white privilege might spark conversations across geographical zones but what you will see is South Africans drawing parallels as opposed to engaging directly with their American counterparts. 

“In South Africa, you see the lines between black and white Twitter where political conversations are not necessarily happening between the races,” he says. “So if a black person might express a certain political view, you get white people unfollowing them for example, because they don’t want to have that conversation.” 

Zondi says Twitter is not exactly a public sphere because you can block, ignore and not engage and people remain cliquey. He says Egypt’s post-Arab spring Tweet nadwas, which simulated Twitter use in open forums, were an example of social media groups spilling out into the wider public.

When South African model Jessica Leandra called a South African storeworker a “kaffir” on Twitter, it didn’t take long for her follies to circulate across the black world. When American rapper Talib Kweli weighed in, South African Twitter user @Nobuhle_N retweeted: “So Talib Kweli also retweeted this Jessica Leandra nonsense. WOW, UNITY is a powerful weapon, imagine the things we could do.”

Leandra responded to the backlash by making her Twitter account private.

“There are things that unite us for a common cause,” says digital strategist Tendai Joe. “When Obama was visiting Kenya, someone on CNN called Kenya a terrorism hotspot. It was black people [outside of Kenya] that were defending Kenya. [On social media] nobody has to organise us, it just happens naturally.”

Joe says the medium, in black users hands, has its temporal quirks. “What you will find is that on Sundays [for example] there could be a drama that could just erupt [on black Twitter] that would just come up in ways that it hasn’t been there from Monday to Saturday.”

Joe says a hashtag such as #TheAfricaTheyDontShowOnTV shows that through Twitter we have “become more conscientious about our continent and more proud of who we are because we are using this tool that we’ve never had before. This could connect people from everywhere from Atlanta to Harare or Kinshasa.”

Mkhize says the similarities among users across the diaspora have to do with “the shared sense of critique of white mainstream hegemony”, especially in media. “There are popular culture similarities. The black diaspora always finds ways to connect, particularly if there’s a shared idea of this thing called ‘blackness’. But there is a vast difference between the interests of South Africans and people in the US.”

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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