True Social Media, Black Twitter and Paula Deen’s Fail Whale

Social media gets a lot of (deserved) abuse for presenting an unrealistic portrait of our lives. We filter. We edit. We call ourselves friends with people we’ve never met. But as fake as social media can sometimes be, it can also reveal truths that have sometimes been hiding for too long.


Sometimes, the truth we see isn’t pretty. Yesterday, for #transformationtuesday, a picture of Paula Deen’s 2011 Halloween costume popped up on her Twitter account. She was dressed up as Lucille Ball. The problem? Her son was supposed to be Desi — and he was wearing brownface. Deen and her people fired the Social Media Manager who posted the picture, and their defense is that the shot was taken before Deen was outed for using racial slurs. That’s true, but it’s also true that Deen and her team sanctioned this kind of behavior in the first place, and it’s clear that racism (or, at the very least, insensitivity) is still a systemic problem in her workplace. Despite the fact that Deen herself probably didn’t have anything to do with the actual posting of the picture, it’s still ultimately her responsibility to prevent racism from being perpetrated in her name — and to protect the people who work with her and her brands (including many here in Birmingham) from suffering the fallout from a public relations problem that she’s at the heart of.


Social media can be embarrassing and harmful — sometimes refreshingly honest. It can also be a powerful tool in empowering people whose voices have been quiet or suppressed for too long. We’ve seen this overseas for years as people who live under oppressive regimes without free press have used the Internet and social media, and especially Twitter, to tell the truth about their lives. And now, Black Twitter is helping to reveal oppression in our country as well.


What’s Black Twitter? It’s not a new App or a secret channel of regular Twitter or anything like that. It’s basically just black people who happen to be using Twitter. The reason it’s a big deal is that people who’ve been marginalized for a really long time now have a voice — and besides allowing individuals to speak, it’s also connecting people to each other. It’s letting people discuss things together, and it’s unifying lots of voices behind issues that otherwise would go virtually unnoticed and unreported. We all make fun of hashtags (and that makes sense, because they’re often silly), but they’re also really useful in bringing people together around central topics.


Black Twitter is probably the reason we know about Ferguson and Baltimore and the burning of black churches. Sure, we heard about them on the news or on our Facebook crawls, but the reason they were reported in the first place (or at least the reason the reporting escalated beyond a day or two of coverage) was because Black Twitter wouldn’t shut up about them. And you know what? We shouldn’t shut up about this stuff, because it does matter. With a media driven more by news cycles than quality coverage and a press concerned far more with advertising revenue than with their responsibility to inform the nation, it’s about time “we the people” found a way to drive coverage back toward truth and issues that really matter to us.


Ideally, we’ll eventually have just one Twitter without the racial modifiers, because we’ll hopefully find ways to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s perspectives without being forced to. It would be nice to live in a world where hashtags like #blacklivesmatter were superfluous, but we don’t live there yet. America can be the melting pot we aspire to be, but in order to get to that blending of cultures, we’ll have to find a way to really hear each other in the first place. For now, Black Twitter is a tool helping us to do that. It’s revealing a truth about America by speaking the truths of individuals, and that’s something I think is beautiful, important — and ultimately, very American.


Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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