the women behind #noconfederate discuss the power of black twitter

They share their tips for creating the perfect trending hashtag and how people of color can use social media as a force for change.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
03 August 2017, 6:10pm

Yes, social media lets us express ourselves, but being heard above the noise of the internet can be difficult. Starting a conversation that jumps from our phones to our dinner tables is tricky. The challenges: crafting a short and memorable hashtag, distilling complex socio-political ideas into 140 characters or less, and connecting with other prominent Twitter users who will help shine a light on your cause. Want advice on how to start a successful protest online? Look no further than the five black women behind this week's #NoConfederate campaign.

Jamie Broadnax, Shanelle Little, April Reign, ReBecca Theodore-Vachon, and Lauren Warren were disturbed when HBO announced it was developing an alt-history drama in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. They were fans of other HBO programs, including Insecure and Game of Thrones (the creators of the fantasy show are also behind Confederate), but they felt like HBO was ignoring the feelings and interests of its black viewers. So they decided to do something.

"We actually came up with the idea over group text," says April Reign, a former lawyer who started the highly successful #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2016. The women come from varied backgrounds, each bringing a unique viewpoint to the table. Jamie is one part of Black Girls Club, the popular website providing a much-needed voice and platform for black females that take part in fandom culture. Shanelle Little works as a marketing strategist. ReBecca Theodore-Vachon has written on film and television for various publications including The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. And Lauren Warren has experienced Hollywood's diversity problem firsthand as a screenwriter.

The women rallied Black Twitter on Sunday night and encouraged people to tweet out #NoConfederate during the newest episode of Game of Thrones. Surprisingly, the hashtag became the number one trending topic in America and number two worldwide, even beating #GoT. Which prompted HBO to release a statement the next morning, saying, "The project is currently in its infancy so we hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see." Then something else happened. After months of teasing the show, Amazon finally unveiled the plot of its upcoming Will Packer-directed drama, Black America. The show will take place in a world where Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi have been given to newly freed black people as reparations.

Talk about getting results.

i-D chats with Shanelle, ReBecca, Lauren, and April about how people of color can use social media to take control of their narrative. 

How does Black Twitter help you as black women?
Shanelle: I think it was just finding a community of like-minded individuals that was so huge for me. So many women, black women specifically, offer free knowledge online. Free insights into everything from our historical roots and cultural issues. I connected with Jamie Broadnax [of Black Girl Nerds] and I never found anyone who had the same kind of nerdy interests as me. It was just informative for me — learning things that were never offered in school.

Lauren: It's connected me with other creative types. I've gained life-long friends. It's how I got the opportunity to do press coverage at the Toronto International Film Festival for Black Girl Nerds last year. It's introduced me to people all over the world and allowed me to have conversations and laughs that I didn't think were possible…and it's all free.

Why are you against Confederate?
Shanelle: I was picturing my nieces and nephews watching this show and kids wearing slavery cosplay on Halloween. The writers say that's not their intent, but you never know how fandom is going to work.

Sometimes, especially when it comes to these fantasy shows, they treat the black audience like we're an afterthought. We're a huge fandom, and we're a huge community that does, quite frankly, a lot of free marketing. Of all things, you're gonna dream up a history where the confederacy won? Even though we live in a society where we see confederate flags flying over state buildings. It's not that much of a fiction. It's not really an "alt-history," which is why it's painful for black people.

What advice do you have for young adults who want to use social media for change?
Lauren: If you're a creative person, Twitter should be the gateway to your work — not the place where you give away all your work. Give people just enough of a taste of who you are so they are compelled to find you and seek out your brilliance… and pay you for it.

April: What I would really say is be intentional. Really think through what your goals are and what your game plan is and when it blows up, will you be ready? Because with #OscarsSoWhite, that was one tweet. I didn't know it was going to be anything and then it turned into this worldwide campaign. And operate from a position of facts, as opposed to emotion. We are not "angry black women," as we're so often portrayed as, we're incredibly smart black women.

What are some misconceptions the media has about Black Twitter?
April: Black Twitter is not a monolith. We have black people pushing back on us protesting Confederate. It is not group think — black people disagree about whether ketchup goes in the fridge or not! Which is absolutely fine, because no one ever asked white people to be completely on board with each other. So why is it only black folk that are supposed to be marching shoulder to shoulder on every single issue? That's silly.

ReBecca: The idea that black people are mad all the time.

Lauren: That it's a racist, angry mob. Black Twitter is like sitting around a table with extended family, where we tell stories and bond over shared experiences (#CookoutNewsNetwork and #GrowingUpBlack), unite for those we lost too soon (#BlackLivesMatter), and watch TV together. We laugh, argue, make up, share ideas, and boost projects and each other.

Do you come across a lot of cyberbullying? Especially as black women online.
ReBecca: There's a lot of people out there who are "keyboard thugs." Because of the anonymity of being behind a screen, they say things they would never say directly to a women in real life. There's always this questioning of black women's love for comic books online. You talk about this comic book character and you immediately have men jumping in your mentions asking, "Well, how long have you been reading comic books?" It's where, with things like gaming or comics or sports, they don't don't respect women in these spaces. Our gender is always held against us. And I would really, really, really love for that to stop.

April, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign you started led to a lot of media coverage and you've appeared on TV talking about #NoConfederate too. How do you navigate the sudden onslaught of media attention when a movement takes off?
April: It can be difficult. It can take over your whole world, so you want to make sure you stay grounded and know who you are. And do. things. at. your. pace. You can imagine what my inbox looks like right now, but I have to do it at my own speed. If that means I'm going to miss out on a couple of interviews because somebody contacted me with an hour's notice, well, that's on them.

What is the real change you're hoping to see in Hollywood?
Shanelle: As Americans we're sort of raised up to believe in meritocracy. That if we just do the right thing and work hard enough, we'll get to where we want to be. We have, as a culture, said okay to that myth, because it excuses a lot of people being in their position. And no one wants to admit they may have got that position because they had some advantages. But for me, I can acknowledge I've had advantages. From the perspective of being black, I can acknowledge I'm biracial, and that that affords me some colorism that has probably— although I don't know for sure — benefited me in my life.

So the question is how do we make space for others? People act like there's a finite amount of blessings in the world and there's really not.

Lauren, you work in Hollywood. Could you speak on the difficulties you've faced as a black female writer? How does it fit in and/or relate with the lack of diversity we see in Hollywood?
Lauren: Whew. The hardest thing to watch are movies and TV shows flopping left and right because the subject matter and/or execution is just a hard no… I'm inspired and motivated by the work of black women writers and showrunners changing the way stories are told. I also take inspiration from the increase in black women who are getting the opportunity to shine on screen. We need more Ava DuVernay, Courtney Kemp Agboh, Misha Green, Mara Brock Akil, and Shonda Rhimes figures changing what stories are told and how they're told. Figures that employ untapped talent pools on both sides of the camera and allow people to learn and grow in an inclusive environment. I've watched and studied them all and hope to do the same with my projects in the near future so I can help bring up the next generation of black women storytellers and filmmakers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Text André-Naquian Wheeler
Screenshot via YouTube

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