If you were on the blogging platform Tumblr in the mid to late 2010s, social justice blogs like This Is White Privilege and Your Fave Is Problematic were inescapable. They introduced a generation to concepts like microaggressions and colorblind racism and the fallibility of celebrities but in bite-sized digestible nuggets that, in hindsight, seemed tailor-made to go viral. Now even the creators of these Tumblrs will admit that the blogs were also ground zero for a sort of oversimplified self-righteousness that’s still reverberating today. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the founder of Your Fave Is Problematic wrote, “For years, I’ve regretted the spotlight I put on other people’s mistakes, as if one day I wouldn’t make plenty of my own. There can be an unsparing purity to growing into one’s social conscience that is often overbroad.”
On Saturday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s new podcast about internet culture, hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher talked to Dion Beary, the creator and moderator of “This Is White Privilege.” In his first ever interview about his time in the trenches of what he calls the “Tumblr Discourse Era,” he talks about This Is White Privilege’s complicated legacy and what ultimately led him to step away from it. Below, you can read a transcript of the conversation (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), or you can listen to the whole episode using the player below.
Rachelle Hampton: You said in your email that Tumblr discourse was wild. Can you tell me about your experience on Tumblr?.
Beary: When I signed up in 2010, I was just starting to get into socialism as a concept, so that was what I was putting on my Tumblr, and that’s where the followers started to come in. At the beginning, it was fragmented. There was a socialist Tumblr. There was a feminist Tumblr. There was a Black people Tumblr with all these different little political sub-pockets that eventually converged into one big thing that turned into what we would all call Tumblr discourse.
Madison Malone Kircher: Can you tell me about when you started This Is White Privilege?
Beary: I remember that there was a VMAs—it may have been the VMAs in 2013—and that was the first time I saw a real convergence of the multiple different Tumblr discourse sections. I remember that night Tyler, the Creator won a VMA, and that caused a big argument. That’s the very first big political argument I ever remember on Tumblr. The discussion was, “Tyler, the Creator is homophobic. Oh, he’s also a misogynist, but he’s pro-Black. But you can’t judge Black people for what they create to get out of poverty.” That’s when I first started to use that term white privilege or when I first heard the term white privilege. And that’s what prompted me to start This Is White Privilege, which was the Tumblr blog that I moderated.
Hampton: Can you describe what you think This Is White Privilege did and what kind of gap you saw it filling in the discourse?
Beary: There was a big offshoot of other This Is _____ Privilege blogs. I think the gap that it filled was it took a very complex topic, which was privilege, and it simplified it into these small bite-sized chunks that were easier to understand. The basis of the blog was: If you’re someone who doesn’t believe in privilege and you say, “Oh, show me an example,” well, here are a million bajillion examples.
Kircher: Could you describe a quintessential This Is White Privilege post?
Beary: A really simple text post. It would say something like, “White privilege is textbooks being written by people who speak the same dialect that you speak.” Another example would be, “White privilege is every hiring manager that you meet looks like you.” Little things like that. It was really almost a list of microaggressions. I tried to avoid doing big long essays or anything like that.
Hampton: You referred to this time as the “Discourse Era.” How do you see This Is White Privilege and its function in the Discourse Era?
Beary: So I think that there are two levels of what the discourse looked like. There was at the beginning, when we were all just talking about feminism and racism and homophobia and misogyny and stuff like that. Then there became a simple way to explain it. And any time you make something simpler, it has the ability to make it worse. It has the ability to make it not as effective. Privilege is a huge, huge, huge conversation, and I was trying to simplify it. So, therefore, you had people break off into blogs like This Is Pretty Privilege, or This Is Clean Privilege was one that popped up where people were saying that there was an oppressive structure against people who didn’t shower or didn’t smell good. I hope I contributed something positive to a lot of people. I know a lot of people learned about privilege for the first time through that blog. But I also wonder, did I dumb down the conversation so much that I ended up having a negative impact?
Hampton: Why did you stop moderating it? What was the breaking point?
Beary: So I think it burnt out, in the sense that I became interested in other things. I heard someone describe Tumblr once as the abandoned clown factory on the other side of the internet.
Kircher: That’s really good.
Beary: But part of it is I had an urge to make it transactional. I had the urge to make it into a website or to publish it into a book or something along those lines. But I think the ambivalence really comes from I don’t like dumbing down the conversation. I think that when I was 20 or 22, I felt like I knew everything. And I felt like it was so simple and it was so black-and-white and so easy to understand, and that if you disagree with me, that means you hate Black people. And if you don’t like the way I run the blog, it means that you’re just a racist, period. And I was so full of vinegar and anger. And I don’t think that reflects the way I feel now. At 31, I feel a lot different about how to express some of that stuff than at 21.
Hampton: Did you see the Times article from the person who ran Your Fave Is Problematic? Because it really touches on a lot of the things that you’re saying.
Beary: No, and I would love to read that because Your Fave Is Problematic holds a fascinating place in the discourse too, I think.
Hampton: Definitely. What do you think of it? Tell me about that place it holds.
Beary: Yeah. So Your Fave is Problematic was great and horrible.
Kircher: Like the internet.
Beary: Yes. I think that it also did a similar thing that This Is White Privilege did. It was a format that was so digestible and easy to understand that it taught people a lot and also dumbed the conversation down so much that it was difficult to come back from. The same person who called Tumblr the abandoned clown factory also said that Twitter sometimes threatened to reach the Tumblr event horizon. And I think that This Is White Privilege and Your Fave Is Problematic were part of that event horizon where the conversation got so easy that you no longer had to think to participate in any of this stuff. We weren’t teaching any critical thinking. We were discouraging critical thinking. There was a time where we said that it was problematic to ask a question, and that is wild to me.
Kircher: It’s interesting to me that what had a large part in you deciding to step away from moderating this Tumblr is that the mantle has been picked up and weaponized by this online community we’re talking about now.
Beary: Yeah, I do think so. I think there are people, and I’ll point the finger to myself, number one: I was attracted to the amount of attention and “power” and the voice that I had on 2013-2016 Tumblr. I was learning for the first time my ability to mobilize a group of people on the internet, which is now my job and what I do professionally. But there’s something that will always rot when part of your motivation involves the power you get from it, the serotonin shot in your brain. When you can force Tyra Banks to apologize for a character she played on a fake reality show 15 years ago.
Hampton: Do you see a lineage between This Is White Privilege, the Tumblr discourse of 2013, and the internet today?
Beary: Yeah. I’m wondering if you guys do? I don’t know if it’s just looking at it from my narrative scope in the sense that I learned about a lot of this stuff for the first time on Tumblr, and then I was able to take it to other places. Now, when I see a phrase on Reddit or Twitter or Tik Tok that I first heard on Tumblr, of course, I connect it with Tumblr. But did Tumblr actually have a legacy on the whole internet? I’m not sure. I know that other social media channels did not feel to me to be breeding grounds for those conversations. To me, they happened on Tumblr.
Hampton: I hesitate to say this, even though it’s semi-true, but I kind of grew up on Tumblr, in that I got on Tumblr when I was in high school, which I think is when your brain is the softest and therefore the most susceptible to a lot of this stuff. And it’s been interesting seeing the way the raw anger you have at that age changes into something different. I don’t know if it’s Tumblr-specific or the fact that we all just retread the same things every six years on the internet because the internet has the memory of a goldfish, but so much of what’s happening right now is so deeply familiar in a way. And I don’t know if it’s just because there’s a new generation of people who weren’t on Tumblr and therefore aren’t nearly as exhausted by it, or if it’s that we’re just cycling back.
Beary: So I’m a professional wrestling fan. That was my first fandom. And I think that what you’re saying is a very similar thing that you might see there where people get so angry about something they might see on their screen, and I’m not angry about it, because I’m like, “Nah, man, we did this seven years ago. It’s the same thing.” And there’s a concept in wrestling that you can repeat the same angle at the same story or the same character every seven years, because enough people have cycled in and out that people really don’t remember or they think it’s fresh. So I think that’s a similar thing to what we’re experiencing in our current discourse. Maybe it’s the idea that you get older, you move to the center because you’ve had a lot of these conversations, or you get older, and you feel like the center has now shifted onto you. But it’s complicated to pick it out. We’ll see at 41 how I feel about it.
Hampton: If you could go back to the day that you decided to start This Is White Privilege, knowing everything you know now, would you do it?
Beary: Me, with the same mindset that I have now, I wouldn’t. I don’t want the smoke. I don’t want those problems. The earlier part of my career was really me trying to be a provocateur. But I think that people learned good things from those blogs. I don’t think everything we learned was bad. I just don’t personally look back on that as something that I’m proud of necessarily. It helped me understand how to build an online community, but I’m not necessarily proud of the way that it made me behave.
Hampton: We’ll check back in, in 10 years. Last question: What is the absolute wildest take you remember seeing on Tumblr?
Beary: The Otherkin group that was there. I don’t know if you remember Otherkin?
Hampton: I do.
Kircher: In case, hypothetically, someone on this call does not, could you describe it?
Beary: An Otherkin was a person who believed that they were a non-human of some kind. You could be a ficus or a money tree or Harry Potter yourself. Wildest discourse I ever saw was that it was wildly offensive to be somebody else’s kin if they have claimed it first. So if I was Batmankin, right, that means I am the only one who’s allowed to be Batman. And if I encounter someone who also claims to be Batmankin, we have to figure out who posted it first on Tumblr. And it’s extremely problematic for that person to claim to be a kin of a thing that is my kin unless we’re shared spirit kins, then we’re one spirit in two different bodies. So that was probably my favorite one. That’s probably one where I looked at it, and I was like, “You know, I don’t know if this website’s for me anymore.”
To hear the full episode—including 60-second-or-less breakdowns of the latest sagas involving Khloe Kardashian and self-help guru Rachel Hollis—subscribe to ICYMI on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.