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Why #IStandWithLeslie is the beginning (not the end) of protecting Leslie Jones

The internet makes it easy to attack black women. More has to be done to stop it.

ELLE Hosts Women In Comedy Event With July Cover Stars Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon And Kristen Wiig - Arrivals Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Leslie Jones can’t catch a break. For the past six weeks, the Saturday Night Live regular and star of the women-led Ghostbusters reboot has been the victim of vitriolic social media attacks from racist and sexist Twitter trolls, including Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right "professional troll" who was banned from the social network in July.

Jones’s ordeal has resurfaced a longstanding conversation about Twitter’s appalling harassment policies — or lack thereof — that leave little accountability to the cesspool of hatred women and people of color endure on the platform.

But on Wednesday, after a hacker posted nude photos of the comedian as well as her passport and driver’s license information on Jones’s personal website, it’s becoming clear (as Katy Perry surprisingly tweeted) that the relentless attacks Jones is being subjected to are the product of something more sinister and systemic: misogynoir.

The term misogynoir, coined by Moya Bailey, a professor at Northeastern University, and widely used among black feminist circles, refers to the unique ways black women experience the compounding effects of anti-black racism and misogyny.

Indeed, as much as this is about how truly brutal others on the internet can be, Jones’s experience and the acutely personal nature of the attacks that continue to escalate are inextricably tied to the ways black women are systematically dehumanized both online and off.

Social networks like Twitter are the perfect place for misogynoir-laden attacks

Unfortunate as it is, Jones has noted that harassment is par for the course. And for the most part, her comments on the situation have centered largely on Twitter’s inadequately slow response.

An avid Twitter user, Jones, in a Late Night With Seth Myers appearance last month, compared the situation to witnessing an attack at her favorite restaurant: "I love the food there," she said, then pivoted to a problem at the same hypothetical restaurant. "Three people just got shot in front of me. Y’all need to get some security."

Her point: It’s not that she’s using Twitter. It’s that, as at the restaurant, when something violent happens, Twitter should make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But as Bailey told Vox, this isn’t just about Jones’s celebrity. Digital spaces like Twitter — open to all with few, if any, protective mechanisms in place — only magnify the kinds of violence marginalized people like Jones, regardless of fame, experience every day.

"To make it such a personal attack is really a testament to what a digital age does, and how it lends people to think of celebrities and people online as avatars and not actual people," Bailey said.

An examination of the comments of particularly hateful people online shows it’s not exactly a coincidence who gets targeted.

In April, the Guardian reviewed 70 million comments left on its website and found that although only 2 percent (1.4 million) of comments were blocked, when accounting for the writer’s gender, articles written by women had the most blocked comments across all topics, and were highest in male-dominated sections like sports and technology.

Article subjects also showed disparities. While comments on crosswords, horse racing, and jazz were tame, articles discussing feminism "attracted very high levels of blocked comments." As did articles discussing rape. The Guardian also noted that it would close comments for "stories relating to a few particularly contentious subjects, such as migration and race."

Amanda Taub summed up the study’s hidden lesson for Vox: Trolls reinforce white male dominance, a gender and race combo that doubly excludes black women like Jones.

But trolls aren’t the only culprits. There’s also the tech industry, which is just as much dominated by white men, and where black women aren’t just an afterthought but are rarely considered consumers or technical contributors at all.

As a former senior employee at Twitter told BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel, Twitter has become "a honeypot for assholes" in large part because the exposure of people like Jones weren’t exactly considered when the platform was formed:

The original sin is a homogenous leadership. This is part of what exacerbated the abuse problem for sure — because they were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color.

The fact is that even if platforms like Twitter literally help connect people from different backgrounds, these platforms were not built to accommodate every person who uses the site. And when celebrities like Jones are attacked, this flaw becomes impossible to ignore.

#IStandWithLeslie has to connect the hashtag to systemic inequalities

Despite Twitter’s flaws, the social media platform has become an invaluable tool for challenging the status quo. This has been most obvious in tracing the organizing efforts of the movement for black lives. But through #IStandWithLeslie and tweets by pop stars like Perry, misogynoir is also getting attention that may otherwise not have been possible.

But as Bailey noted, the challenge rests on whether the hashtag, and tweets like Perry’s, will connect back to how misogynoir plays out in our everyday lives.

"I think it does bring visibility to some of the violence that people are experiencing, both online and in real life," Bailey told Vox. "I think that's really important."

But hashtag activism, particularly in addressing misogynoir, she adds, needs to be connected to the multiple ways black women are systemically targeted and exploited offline, and redress those problems accordingly.

Troll tweets are only one way tech’s overall barrier to black women plays out. In the industry, for instance, black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs. But when it comes to funding their startups, no one invests. A report by Digital Undivided earlier this year surveyed 378 companies led by black women across the country, 88 of which qualified as startups. The data showed only about 56 percent found funding, which averaged to only about 2.8 percent ($36,000) of the $1.3 million the typical failed startup (often led by white men) receives.

But the same goes for pop culture. While black women like Jones contribute to our larger culture, their labor is rarely compensated as everyone but them turns a profit. Indeed, even though Perry signal-boosted misogynoir, she in her music video for the 2014 single "This is How We Do" can be seen sporting cornrows, baby hairs laid, looking at the camera while deploying slang rooted in black culture like "I see you" with a pursed lip.

Perry — like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift — is one of the many celebrities who have created their own cultural cool co-opting the fashion (and sometimes the actual bodies) of women of color as props to give them an edge. And while Perry, as a white woman, is praised, the injustice comes from the fact that the women of color she emulates, like Jones, are punished for doing the same thing.

We live in a world where black women are consistently dehumanized, where we have to beg people to say their names because their racial identity is used to deny their womanhood and their gender is overlooked when addressing issues that hurt black people.

Jones’s experience isn’t confined to the internet or Twitter. Rather, as Bailey noted, the hashtag, to be effective, has to be the beginning of a much broader conversation.

"I think that #IStandWithLeslie is really a wonderful sentiment, and I think it does a lot for Leslie as an individual to feel affirmed," she said. "But connecting those individual experiences to a larger question of how misogynoir operates for black women who are celebrities and not is really what I hope is furthered at this moment. That it really incites people to do more than use the hashtag, but also think about their everyday interactions and the ways that misogynoir is part of our culture in general."

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly reported the percentage of funds black-women led startups receive.

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