Tumblr touts itself as a place where people are free to express themselves however they see fit. Whether you’re reblogging your favorite cat videos or gawking over the latest pasty faced British actor all over BBC, it is often said that Facebook is for what’s on your mind, but Tumblr is for what’s in your heart. For those of us who use Tumblr to talk about our personal lives, lives that often include daily encounters with racism, Tumblr has become a sort of sanctuary where we can speak out against the trials of having a black body in a white supremacist society. We’re not the only ones who do it. People who are gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, disabled, undocumented, poor, fat, and every marginalization under the sun flock to the microblogging website to talk about their oppression, so much so that social justice is one of the most recognizable spectrums of Tumblr.
So why then does Tumblr staff allow some of their most dedicated users to be bullied, harassed, and threatened?
Rape threats. Violent death threats. Racial slurs. It’s all just become a part of the experience of using Tumblr, particularly for people of color, and especially for women of color and queer people of color. I’ve encountered users who have received relentless violent messages for days on end.
“I hope you get raped, you monkey nigger.”
“Stop talking, cause no one cares about niggers anyway.”
“You’re just mad that you’ll never be as good as a white person. You’ll get it when I rape your mother, coon.”
Of course people who think and speak like this exist, but what’s worse than the messages is Tumblr support staff’s flippant reaction to the abuse. If someone messaged you violent threats on Facebook, the user would be removed. With all the media attention on cyber bullying, the world’s largest social networking site is smart enough not to take the risk. Tumblr, however, has a different approach. When users are reported for violent threats, Tumblr staff simply tells the victim of the abuse to turn off the messaging function, block the user, and ignore the abuse, seemingly unaware that a blocked user can still view the blogs of people who have blocked them, and they usually just create new accounts to continue the harassment. Tumblr refuses to remove most of these blogs and cites freedom of speech as their reasoning.
It looks like everyone on Tumblr’s support staff failed basic Civics and Economics, so let me tell you how freedom of speech works. Your freedoms end where mine begin. You may have the right to blog all you want about Neo-Nazism and Culturalism, but the moment you enter someone else’s space and threaten them, you have violated their freedom. Tumblr explicitly places the rights of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and violent racists over the rights of black and brown people who’ve committed no other crime than talking about their daily lives.
To add the cherry to the bullshit sundae, Tumblr has been known to go as far as blaming the victims for their abuse. I once sent an email to Tumblr support about a user who had basically made his entire blog a dedication to adding racist commentary to everything I said. Tumblr’s response: “It sounds like you’re both to blame here.” There are dozens if not hundreds of users who can give similar accounts of Tumblr staff’s mismanagement of abuse complaints by blaming the victim for the problem. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I had the nerve to talk about racism, so a white person has every right to call me a nigger. Right. Okay. Cool story. It’s gotten to the point where most recent death threats aren’t even reported because users are not confident that Tumblr staff will help them.
This isn’t the treatment everyone gets though. When Laci Green, an inexplicably popular Youtuber, first came to Tumblr, she faced immediate criticism due to some Islamaphobic and cissexist comments she’d made in the past. A few overactive trolls hurled death threats in her direction. She, however, received the full cooperation of Tumblr staff and even the local police authorities. When a story about a Jewish man assuming a black woman was a prostitute began burning up everyone’s dashboards, people requested the story be removed from Tumblr so as to not cause judgement against the Jewish community. Not only did Tumblr remove the original post, they began deleting the post from people’s blogs once it was re-posted. Anyone have a guess as to why those complaints were responded to aggressively? Could it have been because those victims were white? Survey says…
They were white. The message is clear here: if you’re black or brown on Tumblr and want to receive messages, you have to endure abuse.
Awhile back, Tumblr’s head honcho David Karp posed a question on his blog: is it okay to say the N-word (spoiler alert: no)? This question angered the black population on Tumblr. White people may not have realized exactly why, but in the face of the racial abuse we receive everyday, in the face of the death threats that go ignored by Karp’s staff, it is mindbogglingly insensitive that David Karp would ask if it’s okay to use a racial slur when he already knows the answer. On Tumblr at least, racial slurs are A-OK.
This isn’t a bitter complaint. This is an unfortunate warning. In society, people only care about tragedies when they’re committed against white bodies. It’s queer people of color who receive the most physical abuse for their sexuality, but there was no movement against bullying until it started happening to white people. Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting and Aurora isn’t the first theater shooting. It’s just the first time it’s happened in the suburbs instead of in the hood. Tumblr’s poor response to harassment, abuse, cyber bullying, and death threats is going to end up getting someone killed some day. What saddens me most is that I know in my heart of hearts that the first victims will be people of color, and Tumblr still won’t care, not until they can see the effects on people who look like them.