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Digital Culture: Mikki Kendall and the Weird Fetishization of Black Twitter

The first in a series of interviews about digital subcultures and communities.
(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

As twin “no-indictment” decisions were announced last week in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of white policemen, media attention turned once again to Black Twitter. A community of mostly African-American users of the platform who tweet about civil rights issues, among other things, Black Twitter has been credited with the likes of scuttling a book deal of a juror from the George Zimmerman trial to getting Paula Deen’s cooking show canceled after the celebrity chef’s use of the n-word came to light. Just last week, the New Republiccredited Black Twitter with spurring outrage that caused a Republican spokeswoman to resign after calling the Obama girls “classless” on Facebook.

Twitter is popular among young African-Americans—a Pew report earlier this year showed that 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-old African-Americans online use the platform, 12 points higher than among whites in the same age range. Accordingly, black-focused media have embraced the phenomenon. Complex has a weekly Black Twitter round-up, and the Root tracks trends among black tweeters.

"This weird fetishization of Black Twitter has become more and more offensive because every article is like, 'Oh my god, black people on the Twitter! And they talk about things!'"

Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) is one vocal participant in Black Twitter. She tweets about systemic racism and inequality to her 28,300-plus followers. But she also tweets—and retweets—about all sorts of other fare, from her addiction to banh mi to rape culture. And that variety, she says, is exactly what the media misses about Black Twitter when reporters swoop in for race-related soundbites: that “cherrypicking” from a multidimensional community leads to misrepresenting it. “The scroll wheel works,” she says. “Use it sometimes.”

This interview, which has been condensed and edited, was conducted a few hours before the announcement that the white New York City officer who killed an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, in an illegal chokehold last summer would not face charges.

The media has told a narrative of the growth of Black Twitter that basically goes: It started out as a bunch of people participating in fun hashtag games, and it's turned into serious social engagement around serious civil rights issues. Is that what it has felt like to you?

It's basically doing the same thing that black people have always done. It's kind of a barbershop/beauty shop kind of situation. People are talking, people are friendly, and all kinds of topics come up. Sometimes they're serious; sometimes they're not. Around the same time things were happening with Trayvon, there's at least half a dozen other things that were not serious that were also widely spread.

It's just that some things now are getting picked up by the media. I think Twitter perhaps is one of the most visible platforms, because it's not branded as being specifically for black people. It is instead, “Oh, Twitter's for everyone.” Well, everyone gets on Twitter, and after awhile, they start to notice that everyone is maybe not as engaged, not as active, not as funny. I think a lot of the “Oh my god, Black Twitter” is also about the fact that you're seeing humor, you're seeing arguments and whatever happening. That's normal to us, but if you're outside our community, it is probably not something you've seen before.

So what is it like, then, to have this fully fleshed out ecosystem happening and then to have the mainstream media sort of swoop in and pick up some of it?

I'm so sick of the astonishment that black people talk to each other and have friends that are not black who also participate in their communities. And that we talk about issues—because we're human. And if you've used this particular platform a different way, well feel free to trot over to Facebook or whatever, where grandma, your aunty, your cousin, that chick you went to high school with, is having basically the same experience, but you're used to seeing them do it, because to you, they're people.

"I can't stop talking about it, because I've got a 15-year-old son, and I'd like him to be able to walk to the grocery store and come home again."

This weird fetishization of Black Twitter has become more and more offensive because every article is like, “Oh my god, black people on the Twitter! And they talk about things!” Well, your grandma's on Facebook talking about that time your cousin slept with the mailman! And?

Twitter is a public forum—one can swoop in and take from it what they will even if it's something that doesn't give a comprehensive view of what's actually going on. People do that all the time.

I understand it's public and all of that, but the reality is that if you're only interested in what these communities have to say when it's going to be a ratings boost or whatever, then you can't then turn around and write an op-ed piece about what Black Twitter talks about, because you only looked on Tuesday. No other research, no other study is going to be deemed valid for half an hour on Tuesday afternoon after a major news story.

That's not a quality research. That's not even research. You're a peeping tom.

The next question is probably going to speak to exactly what you were just saying pisses you off. So on that note: How has Black Twitter influenced media narratives in recent cases? It's gotten credit for the woman resigning after calling the Obama girls “classless” for their outfits at the turkey pardon. The Ferguson protests. Paula Deen's racism. Do you think that Black Twitter has influenced all of this stuff? Or is it more cherry-picking?

Black Twitter is influencing things. George Zimmerman had the trial he would not have had without outrage. We are seeing federal steps about police brutality starting to come together, because of outrage. But it's a double-edged sword. I think that we are having an impact. I also think that there's a perception that we are only on Twitter and we don't care about anything else, and we don't do anything in our communities. It's not true.

But you're going to go to the school in your neighborhood to argue about funding, you're going to meetings, or whatever else it is that you do. And you're not necessarily going to announce it on Twitter. And particularly now in the wake of Gamergate and all these other things. And even before Gamergate, with the threats and the doxxing, all of that, a lot of people, me included—I don't talk about a lot of things that I do. If it's something around kids, or whatever, it might be my kid's school. It might be my friend's kid's school. Well you know, I’ve got 14 people telling me how they wished I would die in the last two weeks, so maybe I don't want to tell you where I'm going to be.

There's a lot of racist harassment that comes along, too, with being on Twitter. And sexism. I spent a significant chunk of this morning on the phone with the detectives in Madison, Wisconsin, because of a guy who I don't know from a can of paint who likes to threaten people who talk about race online.

Last year, prominent blogger Feminista Jones said in Salon, “We have often used grass-roots communication to organize and mobilize efforts to achieve freedom and equality.” Do you agree with this assessment of what Black Twitter is, and how would this work in a public forum?

Take police brutality for instance. what is happening in Ferguson's happening in New York, is happening in Chicago, is happening in Detroit, is happening in Utah.

"I'm so sick of the astonishment that black people talk to each other and have friends that are not black who also participate in their communities. And that we talk about issues—because we're human."

Everyone says, “Why the focus on Mike Brown?” Well, it's not just about Mike Brown—which is not to discount his loss and what he meant to his parents. But to say that while we were talking about Mike Brown, we were also talking about John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, the Michael Dunn case. George Zimmerman—these kinds of things are happening all the time. And we're also talking about Daniel Holtzclaw, who's a cop, who's raping women in Oklahoma. You’re going to start to have that conversation with people in all of these different places.

So in the end, Twitter winds up being one of the best possible tools for these things. Do I wish there was a better tool where I didn't have to then also deal with trolls? Yes. Every bigot in town comes to my mentions sooner or later. But is that what’s going to happen? People are definitely using Twitter in this new generation of activism in part because there's not a better way to do this.

Obviously I'm asking all these questions because it's been a prime media focus post-Ferguson, with the news of the lack of indictment and all of that.

I sort of want you to ask your audience why they didn't know these kinds of conversations were happening. And doesn't your community have these sorts of spaces?

It could be that people aren't used to the idea of listening to black people, and what they have to say, and what their thoughts are on to what extent the society has racism built into it.

I think people aren't used to it. I also think Twitter enables us to put Ferguson next to Ohio, next to Chicago, next to Florida and Detroit in a way that didn't happen before. It's very difficult—I had Martin Luther King quotes spouted at me recently. I know people feel like the civil rights movement was somehow magically this Disneyland place where nothing bad ever happened. But the reality is that what's happening in Ferguson, and the reactions, look a lot like what was said about the civil rights movement in the ’60s and before that. You can find Ida B. Wells being chastised by Susan B. Anthony and others for her focus on lynching, for instance. And so it's one of those weird things where these conversations have never stopped. These conversations are always happening. They've been happening regularly and consistently across generations. This is normal conversation about these problems.

What is happening is that people are now having to acknowledge these conversations are happening. But it's much harder, I think, for people to refute them, to knee-jerk say, “They're wrong,” or, “They see racism,” or, “Everything's a race card”—not that some people aren't still doing it—when you can lay out on a timeline, and you can pull it up and say, “Well, this happened this day. Then this happened this day. Then this happened this day, and this happened. And this is happening in this city, this city, this city, this city, and this city.” You can't bounce from Mike Brown and John Crawford to Tanisha and Tamir and—I don't know all their names, good god—and Eric Garner and all of these things, and not then say, “Oh, wait, maybe they have a point.” Well, some jackasses will. But many people, I think, are for the first time having to look up—and I include the media in this—and go, “Huh!”

Because most reporters covering their beat, they're covering local, right? Very few things, relatively speaking, make it to national news. National reporters aren't necessarily having to see the connections. But with “Black Twitter,” now you’re seeing the connections.

Just keep in mind the assumption is that the media will not talk about these problems honestly or fairly. So we might as well have this conversation here on this other platform where we can at least talk to each other and people do know that the media's probably going to pick it up.

So basically, Chris Rock nailed it the other day.

Oh, yes. The problem at this point is not proving that racism exists, and not proving its negative effects, it's “what are you going to do about it.”

With Tamir, originally police said he'd pulled this gun, and wouldn't put it down. Well no, that didn't happen. Because the story before video and the story after video is different. And now we know that the cop who shot him in fact was on the verge of being let go from a different police department before he quit and went on to get another job. But that might not mean anything. He still might not face a trial or charges or whatever. Eric Garner was choked to death. It was an illegal chokehold. The coroner ruled his death a homicide.

"People are definitely using Twitter in this new generation of activism in part because there's not a better way to do this."

At some point now the conversation is no longer, “Well, what were these people doing that got them killed?” Because that's what the conversation used to be. And still is, in some cases. And now the conversation is, “Well, wait a minute. The woman in Ferguson who lost her eye at the gas station because of a police bean bag—she wasn't even protesting. She was getting gas!”

Then the conversation has to be why you're focusing on Black Twitter [instead of the issues]: “They're telling us there's a problem. They’re showing us the evidence. We are seeing it over and over again, but we keep talking about, ‘Why are they talking about that,’ and not, 'How do we fix what's wrong so they don't have to talk about this anymore.'”

You have I don't know how many people telling me about the cops deserving to go home safe to their family, and when I point out that the person they shot deserved to go home safe too, there's a perception the cops are in danger all the time. Actually they're not even in the top 10 most dangerous positions. That's not necessarily going to appear in the article. But if I tweet it, that tweet will appear in somebody's article.

It sounds like it's part “how have you not noticed this before” and part “well, if you're paying attention, we're going to be savvy about it.”

Their argument is generally, 'Well, you know, you all are talking about it in public!” Well, where the blessed hell else can we talk about it? That's the case, and we have to talk about it. I can't stop talking about it, because I've got a 15-year-old son, and I'd like him to be able to walk to the grocery store and come home again.

Digital Culture is a series of interviews about digital subcultures and communities.