Most of the time, being a writer isn’t very fun, and being a writer of color is even less so. Being a writer is a privilege, but writing has always been lonely work. Even for those of us lucky enough to have full-time staff jobs, it can frequently feel isolating to be in a predominantly white setting, the only commonality between fellow writers of color often being our place on our companies’ bottom rungs. It’s no surprise, then, that writers of color (and those of other marginalized groups) have forged communities on Twitter and other social media platforms, where we can communicate in languages that don’t necessitate cultural or linguistic code-switching. Sometimes, those languages allow us to speak more freely, with words or attitudes that are out of bounds in the publications we write for. Other times, they represent experimentation in new forms of cultural or comedic expression. Earlier this week, I retweeted a post that requires both English and Korean fluency, mostly because I thought the tweet was funny, but also as a small token of Korean American pride. I occasionally see, say, Muslim or Cuban American writers whom I follow on Twitter making similar in-group jokes I don’t get. That’s fine. In most cases, I believe people should be able to affirm their identities in the ways they see fit.
But those communities now appear to be in danger. The alt-right is on the hunt for journalists’ heads, and their latest tactic, it appears, is to take tweets out of context and weaponize them against liberal writers. This week, the target of organized conservative trolls is tech and legal reporter Sarah Jeong, a widely respected thinker set to join the New York Times’ editorial board next month. The far-right Gateway Pundit got the ball rolling by claiming that Jeong’s Twitter is “littered with racist filth,” and other, more respectable sites, like Fox News and the National Review, have since followed suit. Among Jeong’s alleged offenses: “#CancelWhitePeople,” “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants,” “I just realized why I can’t stand watching Breaking Bad or Battlestar Galactica. The premise of both is just ‘white people being miserable.’ ” To the pitchfork wielders on Twitter claiming that Jeong is the “real” racist here, the Times responded by treating their new hire like a disappointed parent: “For a period of time [Jeong] responded to [sexist and racist online] harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers. She sees now that this approach only served to feed the vitriol that we too often see on social media. She regrets it, and The Times does not condone it.”
The Times’ bigotry-on-many-sides explanation is infuriating for a number of reasons. The first is that, as Splinter News’ Libby Watson notes, Jeong’s tweets were clearly jokes, not policy proposals. When people of color rail against white people, that’s often shorthand for speaking out against the existing racial structure that serves to keep white people in power. The jokes that people of color make at the expense of whites are furthermore not supported by past and present state and corporate institutions. A white American telling an Asian American to “go back to where you came from,” for instance, isn’t the same as an Asian American saying the same to a white American, even if neither individual can claim ancestral roots as America’s first residents. To claim otherwise is to be blind to the history and social dynamics of this country.
But that’s pretty much what the Times did with its explanation. It more or less validated the dangerous misconception that conservative trolls harassing a woman of color in a male-dominated field, an action that could potentially drive away even more marginalized voices, is equal to a woman of color joking about “canceling” white people, which carries no real-life weight because that doesn’t mean anything. White fragility is real, and so I’ll grant that some readers may have had their delicate skin stung by Jeong’s comments, but it’s more than likely that the very same trolls who tried to endanger Jeong’s position at the Times were acting in bad faith. The Times also ignores the fact that the current alt-right hysteria about besieged whiteness is also fuel for a violent movement that uses its power in the White House to justify inhumane and racist policies.
Jeong’s apology for her “white people” tweets, which mostly mirrored the Times’, includes two extra elements worth considering. “These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns,” she wrote. “I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again.” She notes, with the screen grabs to prove it, that she has been the victim of “torrents of online hate,” while implying that her allegedly offensive comments were meant for a specific audience: most likely other users of color who related to her frustration at America’s racial structure as well as white users with the cultural understanding to know where her jokes were coming from. Jeong’s statement that she “would not do it again” is disappointing, because it suggests her participation in Twitter communities that welcomed those tweets may now be curtailed. That has the effect of making professional advancement come with a price: the separation of those who are ascendant and thus endlessly scrutinized from factions where they may have felt more at ease. (All that, while writers who wish to make strides in their career are pressured to constantly produce engaging content for free to build a “social presence.” Twitter was and is still considered a way for writers to be seen, but that same visibility is now costing them their jobs and communities.) Meanwhile, aspiring writers of color watching this “scandal” unfold may be scared off from engaging with a frequently nourishing community they might otherwise call an online oasis.
As for the Times, it’s difficult not to notice how protective it’s being of white feelings at a time of renewed and active discrimination against people of color. Earlier this summer, the Times’ op-ed team (which is separate from its editorial board) published a treatise on the intellectual sidelining of the Jordan Petersons of the world.* The following week, they put forth, practically back to back, pieces about how liberals’ meanness and smugness were responsible for a newly insurgent movement toward racism and misogyny. And earlier this week, a contributing writer essentially advised progressives to stop calling a racist person racist, at least to their face. It’s tempting to see the Times’ approach to the Jeong kerfuffle as tactical, given its older white readership who enjoyed decades in which people of color’s jokes about white people were forced to stay underground or out of earshot. But now is not the time to accommodate the already privileged.
Correction, Aug. 3, 2018: This article originally misattributed pieces from the New York Times’ op-ed team to its editorial board.