How Will I Know How To (Mis)Treat You If I Don’t Know What You Are?

Back in the olden days before I understood the weird space the Internet could be I was much  more forthcoming about my personal life. And, by forthcoming I mean I way overshared.

I probably still do but I try not to conflate my work with my self.

I have friends who do work on identity and online spaces, particularly as they relate to race and racism. We had a talk once about these casual surveys that operationalize the race of an anonymous online user by the race of the image in their avatar. Embedded in that methodology seems to be the implicit assumption that no non-black person in their right mind would use a black face to represent them so black avatar must equal black user.

I had a similar thought exercise today in the comments of this post about trickle down feminism. I should say it was a post I didn’t want to write precisely because of the conversation that followed. I knew it would follow. It almost always follows when I discuss intersectionality or gender in any way. But several people inquired about my thoughts on the article and, well, I did have thoughts and I do not try to make a habit of being a coward so I posted it.

What followed was an interesting discussion about who is allowed to discuss issues about gender, especially motherhood. One of the charges was that as a non-mother I am not allowed to discuss things like social policy that could help mothers in the workforce. That’s interesting enough but I was really intrigued about why someone thought I am not a mother or have never been a mother: my bio did not mention children or a family.

I think that is so heavy.

If we how represent ourselves online so greatly determines the discourse we have in things like comments sections can you just imagine the way it shapes our daily lives in non-virtual reality?

At the core of that process appears to be that if people do not know WHAT you are they do not know how to treat you.

And that is deeper than I ever thought such a conversation would go.

I don’t discuss the status of my womb because, well, I imagine no one would care. I also imagine that my arguments don’t deserve to be dragged down with that kind of baggage. And, I also don’t think people deserve to necessarily know such things. A friend forwarded me a link to this blog where the writer does a much better job than I of explaining why that is problematic.

But, if we unconsciously look for these signals to determine the merit of arguments or even one’s right to argue then we’ve got more issues than I thought when I woke up this morning. And that’s saying  a lot because I woke up this morning pretty sure the world has hit rock bottom.

Similar to the implicit assumptions about race in avatars the assumption about women online is that if they were real women or real mothers they’d tell you in their bios.


Of course, crazy me I think another way to go is: I don’t know what you are so I will take you at what you say.

But, what do I know? I’m not a mother.

Or, am I?

2 thoughts on “How Will I Know How To (Mis)Treat You If I Don’t Know What You Are?

  1. I get some flak for not constantly talking about my husband & kids at work, for using social media (mostly) to talk about stuff I think about and that only sometimes includes my kids & husband, for not mentioning them in my Twitter bio. For the most part, it’s only been been implied that they aren’t important to me, though I’ll get the occasional comment like, “Bad Mommy! How can you not have pictures of your kids in your wallet?”

    In regard to one’s ability or right to discuss a topic that one doesn’t have intimate experience with, I see both sides. I think it’s foolish to say that someone doesn’t have a right to an opinion or to engage in a discussion of a topic because they don’t have that personal experience. Just because I’m not a soldier doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion on war – my tax dollars are funding it and I’m a person who cares about people, so yes, I can talk about it. I know people who disagree, and when they learn my husband, many other family members & friends were all soldiers, they decide I have a little more right to talk about it.

    On the other hand, I have found myself frustrated with people who share their opinions about things I think they have no business discussing. It’s a hypocritical part of myself and I have to think about it long & hard, in the moment of frustration, so that I can get over myself & my need to have only “experts” invading my thought life with their opinions.

    As for bios informing us on a person’s right to discuss a topic, man. That’s an issue. Most bios don’t cover Every Topic Ever so how can we use them as a litmus test for expertise? I’m not allowed to have an opinion, or a respected opinion on the polarization of our political system because I didn’t say “politics” in my bio? Others should be able to confidently assess that I have no thoughts on politics whatsoever because I couldn’t fit it into 140 characters?

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