Facebook and the Intersectionality of Intolerance

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Jenner woman of the year

I woke up this morning and saw somebody that I thought I respected, somebody I would have considered a mentor at one time, post a transphobic meme about Caitlyn Jenner. It was an updated version of the ones that were floating around when ESPN gave her a nice (but ultimately meaningless) courage award. Instead of wondering why Jenner had been given an award instead of this or that disabled veteran athlete, the new meme pondered how she a) could possibly be given a “woman” of the year award and b) howCosmopolitan had seen fit to give her the award over not one, but two female Army Rangers. I blocked and unfriended the person and fruitlessly reported the meme, but I’m stuck thinking about the rhetorical structure of the meme. How such things remain popular, how people deem them okay to share, even when they know a trans person.


“Somehow Bruce Jenner.” Ignore the lack of a comma. Ignore the multiple exclamation points. We are not looking to figure a person’s intelligence here—smart people often share stupid memes. But it’s that old trick, the oldest trick, maybe, when it comes to dragging a trans woman: The use of her old name. The implication that she still is what culture once perceived her to be. The nomination of other women, real women, and the request that people share if they agree. From the page where my former mentor, whom I met as the Dean of Students at the college from which I received my undergraduate degree, shared the meme, there are over 3,000 affirmative shares. This seems like a small number, but it isn’t, not when Facebook’s algorithm puts a trans woman’s nose up to a transphobic meme and asks her what she’s going to do about it.

Today, many people on Facebook are temporarily filtering their profile pictures with the blue, white, and red flag of France. I know this because Facebook asked me if I wanted to do this myself, and I know this because I am scrolling through some 3,000 shares of this meme seeing many, manyprofile pictures that have been thus altered. Curious, I click on the profile of one such person, whose Facebook cover photo is Jackie Robinson’s iconic number 42. A man would stand in solidarity with France. A man would remember the legacy of an athlete who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. A man who would share that kind of meme. Who is he? Scrolling through his page, it appears that he is excited about the upcoming World Wrestling Entertainment event, Survivor Series. It appears that he won’t be voting for Hillary Clinton, to put it politely. It appears, despite his pronounced love of Jackie Robinson, that he is an anti-black racist. Here is another meme on his wall:

white people

This meme, sourced from the page Right Wing News, has close to 8,000 shares, and twice as many likes. Scrolling down the comment page for it, once again one is confronted with the altered avatars. You can get lost in a rabbit hole like this, clicking avatars and scrolling through to this meme or that hashtag, seeing which ones repeat, which fears are most pronounced. Caitlyn Jenner is far in the distance now, but still visible among calls for “another holocaust,” this time against Muslims, jokes about France just now closing its borders, fears that it will happen here next, the wishful white thinking that it is possible to publicly say racist things and not be a racist. The fear that many Americans harbor about Muslims is the same that animates a person’s willingness to publicly mock a transgender woman, the fiction of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The Jenner meme on my timeline had populated among plenty of well-intentioned friends offering apologies in advance to Muslim people, both in the United States and France, who will assuredly face horrific repercussions due to events they had nothing to do with. There will be another round of articles posted about how white terrorism, which is a thing we are hesitant to name, has accounted for more death than non-white terrorism. Those articles will be true and well-sourced and result in plenty of head-nodding and the outing of one or two racists in the group, surprises, like my former mentor, wolves wearing liberal clothes. A big deal will be made about unfriending or unfollowing or blocking. Eventually, profile pictures will begin to revert back to their pre-solidarity state, and we will resume the long-but-not-long-enough wait between tragedies. Right now, we are united. Or at least we say we are. That unity can mask any number of intolerances. Such unity, ultimately, is impotent.

While we white-knuckle through this tragedy and toward the next, all of us, in one way or another, are playing this game: Wolf. Sheep. I want to say that some people out themselves easily as wolves, but if I do that then I have to say that I buy into the metaphor. Not that some people are dangerous who appear otherwise, but that there is such a thing as purity and, by believing this, that I would mark myself as pure. What I am recognizing today, what I have recognized for some time, is that this is not true. All of us have failed one group or another, have had or still have prejudices. That prejudice is a thing you marinate in forever or that you spend a life recovering from. That prejudice is intersectional and can be interrogated. That it must be interrogated. It isn’t enough to share hashtags and shame right-wingers. To leave it at that is to leave unshouldered some portion of the blame that we are accountable for. To accept the things we say we cannot accept. I don’t want to live in a world where I can call myself pure. Thankfully, there are no end to the memes that remind me that purity is something I threaten.