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stepping out of line

Do not step out of line, if you do, there will be consequences.

TW/CW: mentions of (threats of) sexual violence/r*pe, white supremacist violence, racial slurs, doxxing, and online harassment 

An unfortunate reality for many young writers looking to break into the world of digital media is the necessity of being very online. Build up your Twitter followers, stay on top of the news, have a point of view, be ready to say something about (almost) everything. Find the angle! Find the editor! Write the pitch! Send the pitch! And now wait. Wait for them to check out your profiles, check your linked sources, determine whether this hyper-time sensitive piece of news will go viral and attract more readers. Wait for the editor to determine how young/inexperienced/desperate you are to have a byline at VeryImportantPublisherDotCom so they can pay you almost nothing after two to three months of chasing down the payment through a complicated maze of tired accountants at VeryImportantPublisherDotCom. 

As a freelancer, creating a strategic presence on Twitter ensured that I could build up a good number of clips at well-established publications looking for “dynamic young multicultural voices”. In the wake of uprisings and protests across the nation and the establishment of chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement in the early 2010s, these Very White publications were looking for young Black and brown voices to bring on as freelance writers. It was us who could speak to the politics of the moment. We made them look diverse and they got them the hits they wanted. This new class of hungry writers had graduated with journalism degrees that were almost useless by 2014. My degree certainly felt useless to me. My student loans went towards learning from journalists and editors from once-widely circulated newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News who were teaching us how to pitch as if the internet had never happened: you send the editor a letter, you see? Or you cold call the news desk and pitch at them over the phone! Eventually, if you work your way up, you’ll become a staff writer. For people who worked in the news, it very much felt like they had never read the news. 

And so “dynamic young multicultural voices” had to forge their way through the world of media by showing our worth online. For Black and brown writers looking to get their foot in at any publication, social media became a way for us to get through doors that had previously been locked and bolted shut to us. Through a mix of absorbing every ounce of news that I read, and by being just outspoken and angry enough, I managed to tweet and write my way to some decent bylines. I had what liberal white people were looking for: a bright voice that wrote about injustices from an anti-racist, feminist perspective. They wanted to be “one of the good ones” during these times of upheaval, and therefore there was a use for me as a freelance writer. But the more I wrote, the more visible I became. And that visibility wasn’t always a good thing, it eventually made me a target. 

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“That mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble one of these days.” This statement is stitched into the little swirlies and squishes of my brain. It was often repeated to me by both of my parents. And I guess they were technically right, but that statement to me always meant that being brave, saying the thing that we know to be true and affirming to those who have historically suffered from oppression, will often put us in the firing line of anyone dead-set on maintaining the status quo. Which status quo? What bell hooks names as the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. What that statement actually meant to my parents was something else entirely: do not step out of line, if you do, there will be consequences.

Fortunately and unfortunately, this never deterred me. 

After two or three years of writing primarily about race, gender, and everything in between, I started to become hardened against online harassment from misogynists, racists, queerphobes, etc. I began to expect their responses to almost anything I had to say, it was part of the job, right? The harassment had a wide range. Sometimes it was seemingly innocuous trolling, but it also looked like white supremacists telling me to go back to my country, or emails with photos of me with nooses drawn around my neck (often accompanied with a pithy one-line of text calling me a nigger). Men sent me rape threats. If I wrote a piece about being a survivor of sexual assault, then they told me I deserved it. It just went on, and the threat of violence became the ghost that followed me from room to room, moment to moment. 

There was a certain correlation between these occurrences and my worsening mental health, but I ignored it because I couldn’t afford to not write, and I couldn’t afford to not be on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Leaving those platforms would certainly decrease my value to the editors I was working with. And then there was THE day. THE day was when I felt an actual snap in my psyche. THAT day I wrote something triggered by unrelenting anger towards the unstoppable force of white supremacy and its bubbling, seething hatred. I published it on Twitter, and I continued on with a thread. I re-read the thread a few times. I nodded. I closed the app and went to meet some friends with whom I was helping organize a series of events. I felt a little lighter. 

Two hours later, I checked my phone. I had too many Twitter notifications to count, and five emails from the platform alerting me of attempts to change my password. I sifted through more of my emails. 12 emails from suspicious accounts with variations telling me to “hide”, to “kill myself”, to “watch my back.”

I called my husband. I rushed back home, securing all my various profiles with double authentication settings from my seat in the subway as the reception went in and out. I could feel this rising panic from my guts to the back of my head. My eyes were struggling to focus as the sound of my blood pulsed in my ears. I felt frozen in the hard, plastic seat. I kept trying to breathe easily but I couldn’t, it felt like my body was strangling itself from the inside out. I just scrolled through the reactions to my thread. They had started with affirmations from other Black and brown people who held the same anger in their hearts as I did, but enough retweets and visibility drew in the garden variety racists, the whites sensitive to whiteness being called out as a systemic structure, the hardened white supremacists who spent time online mobilizing against BIPOC, the Nazis with enough Twitter accounts that they moved from one to the other when they got banned for hate speech (a difficult feat to begin with). Different factions of white supremacists started to amplify the thread to proportions large enough that right-wing (read: subtly and/or openly racist) “celebrities” like the guy who played Lucifer in the CW show Supernatural retweeted it with his reaction, shooting my words into the sky for a mad scramble to shred me apart. I had stepped out of line. I needed to be put in my place. 

The next 24 hours felt like being in a cabin made of matchsticks about to be demolished by a wrecking ball. I had received several emails from someone detailing how he was going to rape me. My words were plastered across alt-right sites like The Daily Wire, racists were mass-tweeting every outlet I had been published at calling for my resignation (they didn’t know how freelance writers actually work. It would have been nice to actually have been employed full-time and have a professional support structure). Soon a few incredibly incensed and devoted white men started a campaign to target any platform I had ever written for via email, with threats of boycotts and more. I had to call my family to alert them to all of this. I had to contact my editors to let them know how and why this was happening.

And then it got worse. 

I received two voicemails and a series of texts: I had done a bad thing and they were going to find me. They had my address. They knew where I lived. 

I scrambled to figure out where I had been doxxed. It had started on a social media site popular with white supremacists called Gab. Then my information moved to Stormfront, a very violent white supremacist group that listed me as a target for what I had said. Soon, I was told by dark web-familiar people that there was an organized campaign happening to make sure I would be “shut up forever.” The mobilization against me resulted in weeks of a steady flow of verbal threats, littered with racial slurs, threats of lynching, rape, torture. Their imaginations were filled with me and my slow, difficult, painful death. This was their fantasy and I would be privy to their innermost thoughts. 

My sudden hypervisibility in the terrible spaces of the internet did very little to bring me any support systems or shows of solidarity that would have made me feel less alone and that we are more familiar with today in our various Twitterspheres. Support came privately, in my DMs. It was 2017 and people weren’t ready to defend BIPOC writers. It wasn’t a popular thing to do yet. The harassment we received on a regular and daily basis was the price we had to pay for our work. The only people worthy of defense and support don’t look like us and they don’t write the things we write about. I am all too familiar with this as a survivor of sexualized violence who was then harassed for speaking out about it, and all too familiar with it as a Black, multiracial writer. 

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The harassment, the threats, the consistency of them both compounded the feelings of alienation and almost made me question what I had said. Simply calling out whiteness and white supremacy for the evil that it is had resulted in me no longer feeling safe in my home. My friends and family were sympathetic to me, but there was so little that they could do and they didn’t necessarily understand what was happening and how this was happening. Most of their advice was for me to simply delete my social media accounts — a natural response for someone who took these threats seriously. And although I did take the threats on my life with the weight they deserved, a part of me knew that retreating and shutting up was precisely the goal of the white supremacists targeting me.

So, over the course of the next month, I did nothing to visibly change who I was. I watched these people tire themselves out. I collected the emails, and took screenshots of the tweets, and reported the worst of them, and I used blockchains to mass block high-follower count white supremacist profiles on Twitter. I blocked the numbers that contacted me. I worked diligently to visibly continue to do my work online without fear. I did all of this publicly while I privately absorbed the fear. I was traumatized, I was almost scared into silence. But I could not show them my fear. I waited and I watched for months until they got bored.

A little under a year later my husband and I moved to a new home outside of Philadelphia. I made sure that my address and phone number were almost impossible to find by run of the mill racists with too much time on their hands. I slowly retreated into myself. I found ways to do my job differently. My writing slowed. I stopped freelancing at other publications. I focused on editing and working with young BIPOC writers who needed the support systems I wish I’d had. Sometimes I am bold, brave, and I say the thing I need to say loudly because it is right. But what happened did change me, and it did almost break me. But I am still here.

JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — Every single dollar matters to us—especially now when media is under constant threat. Your support is essential and your generosity is why Wear Your Voice keeps going! You are a part of the resistance that is needed—uplifting Black and brown feminists through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey with us. This platform is our way of making necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.

LARA WITT  MANAGING DIRECTOR Lara Witt (she/they) is an award-winning feminist writer, editor, and digital media strategist. Witt received their BA in Journalism from Temple University and began her career in journalism at the Philadelphia CityPaper and the Philadelphia Daily News. After freelance consulting for digital publications and writing for national and local publications, Witt joined Wear Your Voice Magazine eventually becoming their EIC and re-shaped the site to focus primarily on LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As publisher and managing director, Witt’s goal is to provide platforms for marginalized voices and to reshape the landscape of media altogether. Witt has spoken at universities and colleges across the nation and at local Philadelphia events, such as the March to End Rape Culture (2017). She also helped curate a yearly series of events called The Electric Lady Series in Philadelphia, highlighting women of color and their contributions to culture.  Video Player is loading. Witt’s goal is to provide platforms for marginalized voices with a focus on having other Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) writers tell their own stories and explore their own narratives. Witt has spoken at local Philadelphia events, such as the March to End Rape Culture (2017) and curated a yearly series of events called The Electric Lady Series. These events highlight women of color in Philadelphia by exploring gender, rape culture, entrepreneurship, art, self-care, sex, and culture.

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