OPINION: ‘Woke Twitter’ needs to hold itself accountable

Graphic by Emma Li

In the atmosphere of blackface accusations against Instagram influencers, Ariana Grande has come under the spotlight for potential cultural appropriation and revealed the hypocrisy of many ‘woke’ Twitter users.

Back in December 2018, a Twitter thread “exposing” white Instagram influencers who were using self-tanner, extensions and lip fillers to make themselves appear biracial went viral. This phenomenon took on many names, including “blackfishing.” The original intent behind this thread seemed to be to call attention to this blackfishing as it appeared.

Many people kindly took the time to explain why blackfishing on the internet is problematic. Writer Stephanie Yeboah told the Independent that “what we are seeing — especially on social media — is another way of white women co-opting, profiting and benefiting from appropriating another race and brands are encouraging this.”

Unfortunately, the end product of the original blackfishing thread was public shaming. Often, situations like this end in celebrities being “canceled,” meaning people publicly proclaim they no longer support the artist.

Generally, “canceled” artists continue to make art, continue to have a wide fan base and rarely change their behavior. So “canceling” famous individuals is seldom an effective method of bringing about change.

Recent scholarship about “calling in” as opposed to calling out shows that personal interaction, education and interactions with perpetrators who want to change their behavior is a better method for bringing about change.

Shortly after the “thank u, next” music video dropped, an image comparing Grande now to what she looked like during the years she appeared on the TV show “Victorious” circulated around Twitter and Instagram. The old photo showed an incredibly pale Grande with dyed red hair, while the new one showed her current tan, full-lipped, high ponytail-wearing self.

The original tweet, which only got around 465 likes, was captioned “Why does nobody talk about how Ariana Grande is appropriating black culture?” Around the same time, Grande was accused of imitating the linguistic characteristics of black women.  

An interesting pattern began to emerge. Many of the same people who had called out the other influencers rushed to Grande’s defense, claimed the accusers were “reaching” or simply ignored the allegations.

My intention is not to suggest that we should “cancel” Grande or to draw conclusions about whether she is performing blackface. There have been several articles debating the subject, and as a white person, I have no authority to make this distinction. Instead, I hope to highlight the hypocrisy of those who call out certain famous figures for their wrongdoings, yet remain quiet when figures they “stan” are super fans of do the same things.

Grande has acquired a massive fan base on Twitter, which she regularly uses to interact with fans. Popular Twitter users often take part in stan culture that idolizes and glorifies certain celebrities to an extreme extent, and led the charge with this attitude toward Grande.

While “stan Twitter” and “woke Twitter” might appear very niche, they are highly influential. Popular Twitter users are in many ways influencers themselves. However, since Twitter is a word-based medium (as opposed to Instagram, which is image-based), it is popular Twitter users’ opinions, rather than their looks, that tend to be copied by their thousands of followers.

Due to Grande’s strong Twitter fan base, whether she should be categorized with the perpetrators of blackfishing has become a controversial topic. The perceived closeness Twitter allows fans to feel with Grande leads them to believe she is one of them, and it is harder to “cancel” someone you love.

This is not a critique, but rather a call to action, urging people to hold themselves to the same standards to which they hold others. If Grande can tick off boxes from the list of actions that constitute modern blackface, then Grande’s fans must hold her to the same standard as the influencers they would otherwise call out. The most difficult part of activism is reflecting on yourself and your own community, and asking yourself what privileges you have.

Julia Szabo PZ ’21 is a Gender Studies and Media Studies major from Boston, Massachusetts. She spends approximately 25 percent of her free time listening to the “Mamma Mia 2” soundtrack.  

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