I’ll admit it. Sometimes, if I have a tense back-and-forth with someone on Twitter, I check their profile. If I see fewer than 100 followers and no blue check, I think, “Is this worth even talking about with you?”
If someone who has a blue check says they don’t think that way sometimes, they’re lying.
I’m a progressive. I’m an attorney. I am intentional about how I share my thoughts on race, sex, sexuality, gender-based oppression, and LGBTQ+ liberation.
And my views have been amplified over the past few years since a blue check now appears next to my Twitter profile.
Here’s how it began. During the George Zimmerman trial, I was disgusted by the way the attorneys were treating Rachel Jeantel, the friend of Trayvon Martin. I tweeted out something like:
“Of course a White man with power automatically believes anyone with less privilege is lying about their stories. This is the treatment of Black women all across America.”
I tweeted that line (and a few similar tweets), and nothing was the same for my life on Twitter. It was retweeted thousands of times, and I gained 1,500 followers overnight.
From then on, I continued making more insightful commentary. But make no mistake: This is my real life, not mere 280-character tweets. My life does not begin or end on Twitter.
When I began tweeting about the Zimmerman trial, I was two years out of law school and a fairly new attorney. I knew I didn’t want to go the traditional legal route, and I was excited about the unique opportunity to make substantive change in real time, even via online platforms.
But the chatter of social media is busy and loud. Everyone can be heard, which often means no one can be heard. It’s a democracy — which is good. But within that, there sometimes needs to be a hierarchy.
A few years after my first viral tweet, I received an invitation to have my account verified. I had to think about it. It’s our nature to want to be approved by powerful entities — whether we want to admit it or not. But we also know that with great power comes great responsibility — and attention.
Twitter began to verify accounts in 2009. It was mostly celebrities, some of whom would simply tweet out a photo of themselves holding up a paper with their Twitter handle. Over time, people who were not necessarily celebrities but still needed their identity verified would apply for that blue check.
The process was simple. I sent over some biographical information, proof of my identity, and a few links to stories by and about me that proved I was worthy of having Twitter-verified status.
(Twitter “paused” the verification process in 2017, when White supremacist Jason Kessler was verified around the time of the Charlottesville incident. Although officially there is no way to be verified, Twitter has continued to quietly verify thousands of accounts.)
Within days, I received the news of my approval. Ever since my verification, it’s hard to deny that people recognize me more online than they ever did before, and that isn’t because my content has significantly changed. It’s because for many people, having a blue check holds much weight, if for no other reason than people believe verification is a sign that a person has greatly contributed to media, politics, journalism, or a recognizable industry.
Having a blue check undoubtedly opens doors. Television producers and media outlets look for blue checks when requesting appearances and interviews.
But it also deeply exposes me to harm, especially when my presence is a threat to White supremacy.
Black people with blue checks are often called house negroes or blue check negroes.
I’ve often seen the same exact thoughts tweeted by different accounts. The verified account will always receive more backlash than the unverified account. That’s partially because of visibility and partially because that blue check means your ideas and thoughts hold more weight.
Recently, I tweeted about Senator Kamala Harris and her prior history as California’s attorney general. The backlash was swift and strong.
Someone implied that I was a Chuck Taylor: the lead White anchor played by comedian Dave Chappelle, in whiteface makeup and a blond wig, on Chappelle’s Show’s fictitious News 3. Black people with blue checks are often called house negroes or blue check negroes. Although Black people with blue checks come from all fields and backgrounds, were often dismissed collectively as Black Blue Check Twitter like Hotep Twitter or Black Twitter, as if we’re a monolith.
I’m called a blue check negro not just because I dare to do something like question Senator Harris’ background, but because the blue check means I am not immediately dismissible when I do so.
My tweet about Harris actually emboldened a few folks to contact my employer, where I had just started in a leadership role, to get me reprimanded. Searching out an employer and trying to have someone fired is usually done with people who show racist or sexist or otherwise discriminatory behavior — not people who simply have a controversial viewpoint on a politician.
Since 2016, I have been doxed, threatened by White supremacists, and received hundreds of angry emails based on tweets. These threats were so serious that the campus police at Georgetown University Law Center, where I am an adjunct professor of law, once called to ask if I needed to be escorted to class because of how many hate-based reports they were receiving.
Because I don’t believe policing mitigates violence, I didn’t accept law enforcement escorting me to class, but it made me reflect on the harm of having a verified following, even from your own people.
Anti-Blackness means that all Black people with views outside the status quo are feared. And those deemed capable of spreading a message faster to mobilize other progressive and radical Black people are viewed as even more dangerous in the eyes of White supremacists and misogynistic or homophobic Black people.
To be clear, the goal is not to feel empathy for me or anyone with a blue checkmark. I know it comes with benefits, and I have to check myself when I let a random symbol of alleged online status go to my head.
We can argue all day about whether blue checks matter. (They do. And we all know it.)
If you think that tiny bit of verification doesn’t matter, there’s a quick way to determine if that’s really true.
If you have a blue check, what would happen if you logged on one day and it was gone? Would you try to get it back? Of course you would. It’s part of your online identity now.
And if you don’t have a blue check, what would happen if you log on one day and see that you’ve been verified? Do you ask Twitter to remove the blue check? Of course you wouldn’t. It’s part of your online identity now.