In 2003 the United Nations hosted the World Summit on Information Society and declared that there could and would be “empowerment of women through enhancing their skills, knowledge, access to and use of information technologies.” Information ecologists predicted in the early 2000s that the low cost of interacting on the internet and the access to information and opportunities would be a “safer” option for women and minorities to interact in the world.
Fifteen years after the UN summit, women and minorities have more access to technology but there are still real risks and challenges associated with having an internet presence. The internet is not a de facto safe space for women and minorities because the gendered, racist, and ageist realities of the material world, transcend to the virtual world as well. And my experience and that of other women is indicative of this.
In August of 2016, I published a piece on MTV about being a bystander at a Black Lives Matter art event. I had been kindly invited to say a couple words but decided that I would rather watch.
It was a call to other allies and activists, who sometimes needed to show their support by simply showing up. I did not write this article to be inflammatory. But the response I got from complete strangers was really negative– people told me I was a “good for nothing social-justice warrior,” a “dumb bitch,” and that I should “go die in a hole.”
In April of 2017, the Wall Street Journal published a thought piece on immigration, where the author the possibility of American culture being ‘overwhelmed’ by an increase in immigration. He writes at length on the evolving self-identification of second-generation teenagers from simply ‘American’ to a foreign national identity or pan-racial identity like “Asian-American” instead of just “American.” Being a second-generation teenager who identifies as Asian-American and Chinese-American, I felt I had to respond.
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal on my experience being a racial minority in America. And the comments section tore me apart. In the 40-some comments on the Wall Street Journal page, all of them targeted me: from “Ms. Wong, your identity, and your ethnic experiences mean nothing to me” to “Grace must mean something different in Chinese because Ms. Wong exhibits none,” and “Grace, just go back to China.” I got Facebook messages from strangers calling me a “bitch,” “chink” and “crybaby.” People told me I was uneducated and didn’t understand what I was saying.
I wrote to the editor of the Wall Street Journal because immigration is an issue that is very close to home and my American identity is constantly in question, particularly with the Trump Administration. I wanted to talk about immigration reform not be reminded that my identifiers and therefore opinions are not welcome in America.
When I read the UN Summit brief and hopes of information ecologists, I felt torn. While the internet has empowered women and minorities globally by connecting them to new information and opportunities, it has also disempowered them. Internet harassment of women and minorities mirrors that of harassment in the real world. But unlike the real world, on the internet people can hide behind their screens whilst perpetrating toxic narratives of racism, sexism, and ageism.
The easy thing to fix this would be to eliminate sexist, racist and ageist dialogue in both the real and virtual worlds, but we all know that that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But, we can take steps to eliminate this sort of harassment. Talking about workplace harassment and the #MeToo movement, advocating for racial dialogue and equality, and elevating youth voices can all change the narrative.
And, instead of being a bystander to internet harassment, we can act.
You should help those bullied in the virtual world, just as you would help people being bullied in the real world. When I was being harassed on the internet, my friends, family, and followers all sent me private messages and shared my articles in a positive light. For my high school graduation gift this year, my aunt and uncle also gave me a keychain that reads “never read the comments” that I carry around with me everywhere. And maybe one day the world and the internet will be a safe, equal space for women and marginalized groups everywhere.