As the bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal has ricocheted around the web, you might best sum up the reaction with the phrase "LOL white people." News that Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP chapter and a woman of European descent, appears to have pretended to be black for years has prompted howls of outrage online, often in just that language.
Though the story made international waves, it’s particularly suited for Twitter. If the social platform has been accused of perpetuating everything from shallowness to volatility to sensationalism, there is nonetheless something about the service that has made it into a lightning rod for discussions around identity—race and gender in particular. One reaction to Dolezal, for example, came in the form of the #AskRachel hashtag, which poked at Dolezal's convenient appropriation of both a racial and ethnic identity, and managed to be both entertaining while still pointing to complex questions of race, appropriation, and subjectivity.
Why is it, though, that Twitter—a site that famously constrains messages to a mere 140 characters—has become one of the key public sites for the intricate socio-political questions of identity? In fact, it's just that lack of context that works in Twitter's favor: It forces a kind of performative rhetoric around race and gender, making Twitter remarkably effective at not only forming communities, but complicating and enlivening the debate around identity.
That one might say this at all about Twitter is strange. At first glance, tweets appear to be an ideal home to an essentialist idea of identity—that in a medium so compact you have to be consistent or else totally misunderstood. In fact, a novice logging in to Twitter and seeing complaints that “men always explain jokes back to me” or “white people's feelings aren't important” might think that’s just what’s going on. What people do and say online is a performance, though, and how a person is stitched into the complex networks of identity radically affects the meaning of their actions and words.
In addition to the medium’s brevity, clichés about postmodernism—that mass culture is a morass of free-floating signs and symbols, detached from context and history—have found a real-world expression in Twitter. Using it often feels like scrolling through someone else’s head, a stream of skittering, unmoored thoughts, each accompanied by a picture of a head detached from a body and also from outside context. Given the pace and compression of Twitter, the fact that anyone can follow you and respond instantly, and the ability for users to retweet strangers into your feed, the service becomes a strange beast: an experience that seems designed to breed misunderstanding. It seems hardly the place for nuanced discussion about such sensitive subjects.
Paradoxically, however, the constraints of Twitter are perhaps why it has become a focal point for an arguably more lively, grounded discussion of identity: The very lack of context has forced users to add their own, situating statements within a broader framework of history and theory. For example, breezy, casual responses to Dolezal—that she can identify how she pleases, or that she is, in some simple sense, #transracial—found sharp rebukes online, whether in the streams of black feminist activists like @thetrudz, or in insightful twitter essays from scholars (like this one from scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom).
Similarly, Ferguson activists Deray McKesson and Shaun King used Twitter to articulate the history and situations that bred the protests there. Figures like The New Inquiry’s editor Ayesha Siddiqi or MSNBC host and trans* activist Janet Mock, in turn, use their large followings on the platform to interject often-overlooked perspectives—whether that’s anti-colonial, as with Siddiqui, or Mock’s trans-positive activism—into the mainstream.
As a result, many of Twitter's most effective interjections are performative statements: exaggerative, reductive expressions, like that classic “LOL white people,” or “men are garbage.” They are not, in the mode of traditional rhetoric, meant to be clear, irrefutable truth. Instead, what the novice might take as an unfair generalization is in fact an intervention into a conversation in process. While an expression like “lol white male tears” can seem inflammatory, what is actually going on is a mix of rhetorical strategy and coping mechanism. Using over-the-top language is an attempt to push a conversation one way or another, forcing the realities of bodily identity onto Twitter. Such performative expressions are their own kind of shorthand, too, working to resist or shut down the often-exhausting process of arguing with people online.
Walter Ong, the scholar who authored the seminal text Orality and Literacy, suggested that the ephemerality of oral speech demanded what he called agonism: a formally exaggerated, aggressive style of speech meant to keep statements in a listener’s mind in the absence of writing as a tool of memory. Though the densely literate Twitter is clearly not oral as such, it shares some characteristics. Tweets disappear quickly, for example, and the cacophony of its networked form demands that statements stand out in a similarly performative way.
At the same time, it needs a sympathetic audience. Very few people who use the gently mocking, over-the-top language of Twitter’s social justice community actually mean to imply that all humans with pinkish skin are awful. What they mean to do is challenge a dominant, biased narrative with the forcefulness, wit, and will needed to galvanize other people. If you don’t believe we live in a patriarchal or racist world, or that identity can be contested at all, Twitter’s jests seem unnecessarily contentious. If you do, they are necessary tactics, for both politics and community, but simple survival, too.
When it came to Rachel Dolezal, some right-leaning users took to Twitter to mock the language of self-determination used by trans* peoples. (Some also came simply to mock.) Follow the reaction to any disputed statement on a site like Twitchy (a conservative aggregator of “controversial” tweets and responses)—such as a journalist suggesting the next Twitter CEO not be a white male, or Vox making the argument that “you guys” may be sexist—and the division in how we understand language and context becomes clear. To the left, prejudice is a function of structure and history; to the right, it’s an aberration of a fundamentally fair system that minorities and women fail to sufficiently appreciate, and whose norms they refuse live up to. What doesn't change is the structure of Twitter, which doesn't debase or simplify argumentation but turns the platform into an argument about context itself.
Recently, Twitter introduced a change to how retweets work. Instead of simply adding someone else's tweet to one’s own feed, Twitter now allows you to quote it and add your own commentary above. It’s a small change—perhaps a reaction to the new oral-like culture of a platform that asks its users to fill in the background a single tweet cannot provide. Yet, in the loud response to Rachel Dolezal, that lack of context has itself proven to be a boon. It is that, after all, that elicited the diversity of the reaction—where, yes, even a phrase like “LOL white people” helped push a conversation about identity into the public sphere where, otherwise, there would have only been blank space.