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In recent months, there has been a lot of media buzz around the African American community that tweets — so-called “Black Twitter.”
Ph.D. candidate Meredith Clark is writing her dissertation on Black Twitter at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
She joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss her research and the media coverage.
“I call it basically black people using Twitter. It’s very simple. You’re just being a part of a private conversation that’s held in public,” Clark says.
The conversations on Twitter range from social justice to community issues to social viewing of television shows.
“I will never watch an award show without it again,” Clark says.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
When I was in North Carolina recently, the Raleigh News Observer was crowing about a new hire, Meredith Clark, new editor of their community papers and a doctoral candidate at UNC Chapel Hill. Well, they have a reason to brag. Meredith has become the go-to person about Black Twitter. She's writing her dissertation about it. Black Twitter, mostly young African-Americans sending messages in 140 characters or less, gathering in networks, often generating the most popular hashtags in the Twittersphere. Like one about a white professor who had a battle with black women over feminism and ended up having something of a meltdown when he apologized to them for denying their claim that white feminists often didn't include their issues.
Meredith Clark joins us to talk about that and more from WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Meredith, how else would you characterize Black Twitter?
MEREDITH CLARK: Basically, black people using Twitter. It's very simple. You're just being a part of a private conversation that's held in public.
YOUNG: Baratunde Thurston, well-known author, says that it's new but it's really a new take on a very old tradition. The Dozens?
CLARK: That's part of it, and that's one of the parts that, I think, a lot of people are paying attention to, right? The humor definitely draws other people in.
YOUNG: In fact, for people who don't know the reference, the Dozens, this sort of call-and-response tradition, some would call it smack talk. How do you see this happening through Twitter? Pick some of the hashtags or conversations that you might follow.
CLARK: One of the ones that I absolutely loved a couple of months ago was #racismendedwhen. And so, of course, that was predicated by GOP tweet that referred to Rosa Parks ending racism. And so you pick up on that message and you turn it into something of your own. It becomes a joke for those who participate in it, who know that racism is very much still alive and can see insincerity in a message.
YOUNG: And what were some of the other tweets?
CLARK: #Racismendedwhen that Cheerios commercial came out. So glad that the GOP declared racism to be over. So, so glad. Who knew it was that easy? #Racismendedwhen Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder recorded "Ebony and Ivory" while living together in perfect harmony. #Racismendedwhen Mitt Romney sang on "Who Let the Dogs Out."
YOUNG: And on and on.
CLARK: Racism ended - yeah. It keeps on going.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well - but some of the threads - that obviously has a serious underpinning but a lot of humor there. But some have voiced a lot of anger, frustration. I'm thinking of the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen. Tell us about that hashtag.
CLARK: Well, #solidarityisforwhitewomen was started by Mikki Kendall. Her handle is @Karnythia. It was in response to a conversation she was having with another Twitter user, @blackamazon, about how @blackamazon had been targeted by this white feminist man and basically torn apart in their very public intellectual circles.
YOUNG: This is Hugo Schwyzer?
CLARK: Yes. Correct.
YOUNG: Well-known professor, author, speaker. But he was sort of attacking these African-American outlets that were questioning whether parts of the feminist movement address their concerns.
CLARK: Right. And going on the offensive really in saying that their work wasn't meaningful, that it did not have the same place. And so when he had this meltdown and the resulting conversation among these women who had been impacted, where is the help? Where is the support from my community of white feminist allies? And Mikki answered, they're not coming because solidarity is for white women.
YOUNG: What were some of the things that people wrote, again, pointing out that solidarity wasn't for blacks?
CLARK: #Solidarityisforwhitewomen calls Hillary the first viable women's candidate even though Shirley was the first and only nominee. That's making a reference to Shirley Chisholm and her presidential run. #Solidarityisforwhitewomen equals fighting for reproductive rights, but saying nothing about the shackling of pregnant and forced sterilization incarcerated women of color. Lots of different references spanning a number of different cultures. #Solidarityisforwhitewomen when conversations about gender pay and the gap ignore white women earning higher wages than black, Latino, and native men.
YOUNG: We're talking with Meredith Clark. She's writing her thesis at UNC on Black Twitter. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
And, Meredith, the topic can also be just fun. Long before "Saturday Night Live" had her on, Black Twitter was talking about Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope. Her mother is played by Khandi Alexander on ABC's "Scandal."
CLARK: Absolutely. Social viewing is a huge part of what Black Twitter does. You get together with your friends, and rather than talking one to one on the telephone or via text, you get to talk with hundreds of thousands of people who are watching what you're watching. And the commentary is fantastic, particularly with "Scandal." ABC went out there first with the hashtag #mamapope, and so everyone is talking about Olivia's family and how they dress, how they talk and whatnot all behind the hashtag #mamapope.
YOUNG: What are some of the things they say?
CLARK: Hashtags about Mama Pope talked about how her hair was laid even though she'd been in jail for 20 years, how she had the same tenor and rhythm in her speech that Olivia had. You just absolutely knew that this figure was representative of our TV heroine.
YOUNG: We're reading another instance where so-called Black Twitter really had an impact. It's after one of the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial decided she was going to write a book. And Genie Lauren, @MoreAndAgain, found information out about the publisher and started a groundswell, and that book was squashed because people felt it would be benefiting off the tragedy of Trayvon Martin.
CLARK: Yes. And so you're able to see the great ways that coming together in these network connections, using influence when that's through the power of clicks, through the power of hashtags to get something started actually has an offline consequence. So it is not all fun and games. In a lot of cases, it's social activism, certainly the cases of Trayvon and George Zimmerman being tried in his slaying. Kendrick Johnson was a high school kid who went into his gym one day and never came out. He didn't come out alive.
YOUNG: He was found rolled up in a gym mat.
CLARK: Right. His parents are still trying to figure out what happened in his case. Stories that you may not have heard or that may not have lingered in the news for many days, if not for a social media presence, pushing for answers and asking for accountability.
YOUNG: What happens, Meredith, if a group decides we're going to have white Twitter? Even as I say it, some people might say, well, there's whole batches of the Twittersphere which are that anyway. How do you respond to that?
CLARK: Well, it's a very reactionary take, right? And so if you want to go ahead and stage white Twitter, by all means, go ahead and do that. But realize that Black Twitter is not something that was created or formed out of hate. It was formed out of collective self-awareness, out of responsibility for community, and out of individual desire to advance certain causes and to connect with other like-minded individuals.
YOUNG: So what happens now with this sort of corner of the Twittersphere where, you know, many other people might want to get onboard?
CLARK: Well, that all depends on the individual. But there's a difference in participating in the conversation and hijacking the conversation. It's the same thing as going into a public meeting space where people are talking - so perhaps that's a church, it's a hair salon, it's a barbershop - and going in and listening to what's going on and then working your way into the conversation, or walking in and just saying, hey, I have something to say and I want to participate.
YOUNG: That's so fascinating. Think of it as the hair salon or the barbershop.
CLARK: Absolutely. As so many people have said, this isn't a new phenomenon. We can go back to the first black newspaper and see that the messages that were of concern to black people were being talked about there because they weren't being talked about in the mainstream press. In terms of the Internet, we're seeing the same phenomenon unfold. But you don't necessarily have to be black to participate, and it's certainly in no way limited to only black people and topics of, quote-unquote, "black interest."
YOUNG: Meredith, thanks so much for speaking to us.
CLARK: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: Meredith Clark. She's writing her thesis at UNC Chapel Hill on Black Twitter, young people, in particular, gravitating to the social website for social commentary and social change. She also recently joined the Raleigh News & Observer as editor of two of their community papers. You can tweet her @MeredithClark.
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Or as we know you, @hereandnowrobin. I'm Jeremy Hobson, @jeremyhobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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