Before the weight of adulthood came crushing down on me, I was one of the best 9 year-olds at maflau (dodge ball) in my cousin’s street. (This isn’t up for discussion. It’s a fact.) I was fast and I could catch well, much to the delight of my teammates. I took our games very seriously – we would play for hours on end, only breaking if we heard our names being called from inside the gate. The December holiday sun wouldn’t bother us; we’d tease each other, scrape our knees, form alliances and make bets, then scurry into our gates after being threatened with a beating if we didn’t get bathed before dinner time.
There was one particular day I channeled the confidence of a mediocre white man and strutted into the street. I knew I was ready to win that day. We played a long, hard game of maflau and as usual, I was the last one standing. I dodged the last few throws and caught the ball made of plastic bags and old rags, meaning all my teammates who had been knocked out, got to come back in. This upset one of the little boys for some reason, who suddenly said he wanted to go home. I immediately called him a sore loser and we got into a verbal altercation. “Alright fine! Let’s see how you’ll play then.” He said as he grabbed his ball (he made it, so it was his) from my hands and walked home. “Ona zvawaita Vimbai!” [You see what you’ve done now?] was the response I got from my teammates, most of them male. I couldn’t believe it. In my attempt to stand up for myself and them, I had alienated myself, and I should have simply kept quiet so we could at least have kept the games going. So we could ‘keep the peace’. Everyone walked away mumbling and throwing their hands, and my heart sank.
“Your silence will not save you.” – Audre Lorde
The first time I heard that quote, I squinted a little in the way you squint at a lecturer so they assume you’re thinking very deeply about what they said. In reality, it went in one ear and slipped out the other. I must have nodded as well, this being before I learned how to question my questions and wake up my ‘woke’. Once I got to thinking though, I remembered that hot day in December when my speaking ruined the day for all my friends. Silence is golden, my lily white primary school teacher would say when the black girls got too rowdy. Back then, I truly believed her. Back then, I chose silence because society had chosen it for me first, and I had lost a few friends temporarily because I had spoken up.
Silencing on social media
My Twitter Timeline is an interesting place to be. I learn and unlearn on it, and I encounter both wonderful, critical thinkers and horrid individuals, stuck in their horrid ways. Being feminist on Twitter often feels like you have a bull’s-eye pinned on your back, dodging misogynist bullets everywhere. Misogyny isn’t the same as sexism – inside of the soul of a misogynist is a cesspool of murky water bubbling over with a real hatred for women. Misogynists delight in the power of patriarchy in its ability to crush women’s self-esteem, dreams, opportunities and voices. They revel in discrediting any kind of attempt women make at empowering themselves, and then it manifests largely through seemingly harmless sexist tweets. The patriarchy tower stands tall on social media, and the misogynists renovate and repaint it daily a bright red, drawing even more attention to themselves. Misogynoir however, combines the misogynist’s hatred for women and black people, to make black women the target – bearers of the burden of race and gender discrimination.
Silencing is a common tactic – it’s been around for centuries, plaguing various vulnerable groups of people in the world, amplifying the voices of oppressors everywhere. I speak about social media because as a young adult, it is the one space that offers a multitude of opportunities to network, learn and be entertained, but also serves as a space of violence. As a young black African feminist, living in my feminist truth offline can be just as taxing as it is online. There are two things I have struggled and sometimes continue to struggle with online, that have resulted in my choosing silence from time to time: ‘Likeability’, and the violence of ‘teaching’ feminism online.
A big part of patriarchy is its ability to ascribe particular gender identities and traits to women and men. Black women in particular are often portrayed as unnecessarily angry, bitter, and in need of a man to ‘tame’ them or domesticate them. Black women feminists are seen as troublemakers that hate men, seek to divide men and women in the fight against racism/oppression, and are therefore undesirable as romantic partners for men. (Note how all of this is steeped in heterosexual language as well). I and many women I know, were raised to be ‘likeable’. We were expected to be friendly always, even in situations where we were subject to violence. That time your creepy uncle demanded a hug and kiss and you were expected to oblige them and smile, cringing inwardly at the feel of their hand a little too close to your bum? Yeah. This spilled over into my teens and young adult years, until I realised that being ‘likeable’ often means being silent in the face of my own erasure. It meant fiercely denying that you were angry, bitter or headstrong in any way, lest you be undesirable to men. It meant shrinking myself to a size palatable for male tastes. It meant dying a little on the inside.
The second issue is something I still struggle with. From time to time another egg-avi individual will tweet “What is Feminism anyway? Is it not meant to oppress men?” or something equally as nauseating. And then the debate begins, the misogynists stretch their fingers and fire away, chipping away at some of the work black feminists have done to teach feminism online for years now. They are rarely ever robust, nuanced discussions – they are a chance for those who refuse to unlearn patriarchal ways of thinking to crawl out of their holes and gain a few retweets. I love speaking about what feminism can do, what it stands for and how it’s helped me. What I hate doing is having never-ending ‘debates’ about my humanity and inherent equality as a woman. It is violent to expect women to constantly ‘teach’ feminism to people who refuse to see beyond the myths created around it, and it sometimes pushes me into silence. But my silence hasn’t saved me.
The beauty of the feminist cohort that forms your posse on Twitter is unmatched. It’s a group of women who are tired of the oppression from white supremacy, black male misogyny and societies drenched in patriarchal norms. Speaking/tweeting about black African feminisms and their meaning for my life is what’s saved me. Speaking out against the daily exclusions and the erasure that black women face both off and online has made me more aware of the things in this world that need to change. I worry less about my likeability because that likeability has never guaranteed my safety, and I’m not interested in promoting things that endanger me and other black women. Silence is golden, they’ve told me. Well, me speaking is damn near priceless in my life.