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Why the Dave Chappelle-Elon Musk moment is bad news for Black women

The request to restore Talib Kweli's account is a reminder that Black women are far more likely than white women to be mentioned in problematic tweets.
Talib Kweli at Rock en Seine in Saint-Cloud, France
Talib Kweli at Rock en Seine in Saint-Cloud, France, in 2018.David Wolff-Patrick / Redferns via Getty Images file

Now that we’ve had a few days to laugh at the sight of a San Francisco crowd loudly booing Elon Musk for 10 full minutes at Dave Chappelle’s Dec. 11 show, it’s time to discuss why Chappelle, who used to understand race and class issues as well as (if not better than) any other comedian, brought “the world’s richest man” on stage in one of America’s most progressive cities. According to SFGATE, Chappelle asked Musk after the show to unban frequent Chappelle collaborator, the hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, from Twitter. His account was permanently suspended in 2020 for using the platform to harass a Black woman who expressed an opinion Kweli, who's also Black, didn’t like.  

Given that Musk has reinstated several accounts, including those belonging to former President Donald Trump and virulent misogynist Andrew Tate, unbanning Kweli might seem minor.

According to SFGATE reporter Gabe Lehman, “Kweli was standing five feet away from Musk during the request so the Twitter CEO didn’t have much choice but to agree.” 

Given that Musk has reinstated several accounts, including those belonging to former President Donald Trump and virulent misogynist Andrew Tate, unbanning Kweli might seem minor. The rapper and podcaster has much less political influence than others being allowed back on Twitter. However, the story behind Kweli’s expulsion is an acute reminder that Twitter was a cesspool for Black women users long before Musk took over. That appears to be of little concern to Chappelle, who doesn’t use Twitter, and of little concern to Musk, whose platform is also becoming increasingly more antisemitic and transphobic

On July 9, 2020, Kweli responded to a tweet by Maya Moody, then a 24-year-old student and activist, that named several rappers, including Kweli, who are married to light-skinned Black women. Sure, Kweli is entitled to take offense to someone accusing him of being attracted to his spouse because of her light complexion, but it was his subsequent behavior that led to his permanent ban. For more than two weeks, Kweli targeted Moody, tweeting at her for hours at a time, including a period when he sent a slew of tweets over a 12-hour span

As Jezebel notes, several Black women reported Kweli to Twitter’s safety team to no avail. Kweli also shared Moody’s tweets on Instagram and spent an hour on Instagram Live on July 21 discussing her. It wasn’t just that Kweli targeted someone with less influence and power; it’s that he refused to stop, even when fellow rapper Noname publicly encouraged him to. More than a month later, Twitter finally suspended Kweli’s account, and noted in a statement that “Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation. Violence, harassment and other similar types of behavior discourage people from expressing themselves, and ultimately diminish the value of global public conversation. Our rules are to ensure all people can participate in the public conversation freely and safely.” 

After being banned from Twitter, Kweli continued using Instagram to harass Moody, leading one person to even create a petition to implore the Meta-owned platform to suspend his account. Unfortunately, Kweli’s behavior isn’t an anomaly; Black women, more than most people, are accustomed to being harassed on Twitter and sometimes punished for responding to harassment. In a 2020 interview with Jezebel about Kweli, Moody said that people who used Twitter to speak out against bigots “have been suspended for way less than targeting someone and harassing them constantly for over two weeks straight.”

Black women have been sounding the alarm about Twitter’s lack of protections for nearly a decade. When I joined Twitter in 2010 as a 21-year-old college student, I expected to use the platform to connect with friends and fellow emerging journalists. Instead, as my follower count grew and I became more vocal about my commitment to Black feminism, I was subjected to constant harassment that ranged from my Twitter mentions being filled with racially charged epithets to my phone number being publicly shared without my consent, leading to a torrent of text messages and phone calls from upset strangers. Unfortunately, my experience isn’t an isolated one, and the harassment of Black women on Twitter has evolved from the kinds that I experienced early on to more coordinated far-right campaigns that even involve impersonation.

As early as 2014, Black feminist Twitter users were using the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing to highlight orchestrated far-right campaigns designed to spread discord and disinformation. In this instance, Twitter users were creating fake accounts pretending to be Black women and women of color and using those accounts to make hashtags such as #EndFathersDay trend. The goal was to make it appear that Black feminists were supporting such ideas and peddling them. As a 2019 Slate retrospective notes, even as those Black women users were highlighting how right-wing forums were manipulating the platform to harass and dox Black women, Twitter did little to address the issue.

There’s been little concrete action taken to curb the harassment Black women face online.

“It wasn’t just Twitter that seemed initially reluctant to take the problem seriously,” Rachelle Hampton writes. “In the years after #YourSlipIsShowing began, some media outlets diminished the danger of ‘trolls’ by characterizing their flirtation with white nationalism as tongue-in-cheek—until those trolls took their rhetoric offline and onto the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.”

Though Black women were, in effect, the canary in the coal mine — our harassment a sign of a resurgent white nationalism and fascism movement in the United States — that harassment was disregarded. It was treated as just a price paid for accruing a lot of followers on the platform. After Russian bots began spreading misinformation and disinformation in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election, Twitter and other social platforms tried to address the issue by enacting trust and safety measures designed to gauge and ward off disinformation.

Yet, there’s been little concrete action taken to curb the harassment Black women face online. As Amnesty International notes, women of color, including Black, Asian, Latinx and mixed-race women are “34% more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets than white women,” and Black women, in particular, are disproportionately targeted. In fact, according to Amnesty International, Black women Twitter users are 84% more likely than white women users to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets.

Yes, it’s possible to report these tweets and have accounts either temporarily or permanently suspended, but that does little to curb these offensive behaviors. According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, nearly half of accounts that send abusive tweets to women are “reoffenders,” meaning they're accounts that have already been reported but whose owners continue to tweet misogynistic sentiments toward women users.

CCDH’s researchers reported 288 accounts in November 2021 that were sending abusive tweets to high-profile women, including Kamala Harris, Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton and Lizzo. Ninety-seven percent of those accounts were active 48 hours after being reported, and 88% were still active two months later. Beyond that, 111 of the 288 accounts fell in the “reoffending” category — and Twitter had done nothing to address their continued harassment of famous women on the platform.

Researchers reported 288 accounts in November 2021 that were sending abusive tweets to high-profile women, including Kamala Harris, Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton and Lizzo.

If Twitter was unwilling to shield Harris and Clinton from online harassment, imagine the experience of those without the same level of fame, wealth and offline protection. Reinstating accounts that have fanned the flame of these fires, Kweli included, is proof that the “public square” Musk says he desires is not the same one desired by those who’ve been fighting for a safer platform. Deplatforming offenders is an effective tool because it cuts off avenues of contact with thousands and sometimes millions of people. 

For those who’ve been banned for repeatedly violating rules, simply letting them return after some time has expired doesn’t seem to solve the problem. Instead, the lesson has been and should continue to be, the public square isn’t fit for all discourse. It never has been and it never will be.

Even now, Kweli is continuing to target Black women. After Andscape editor Britni Danielle truthfully reported on Twitter, “Reminder: Talib Kweli’s account was suspended for harassing a Black woman,” he used Instagram to call her a “whole liar.”

If Kweli’s response is a sign of things to come for Black women on Twitter, which has recently disbanded its Trust and Safety Council, then it’s going to take more than booing Musk to keep us on his platform. It might take a new owner altogether.