Why Adria Richards’ Silence Matters

Students need guidance in navigating social media, especially when it’s being used to bully and silence their peers.

In case you missed it, Adria Richards, was recently fired from her job at SendGrid after tweeting a photo of two white men at a technology industry conference, who were making sexually charged jokes.

Richards is a black technologist whose goal is to make technology accessible. The online backlash to Ms. Richards’ calling out sexism has ranged from racial slurs to rape threats. It also silenced her; she stopped posting on her blog and has not tweeted since March 23, because she’s “staying safe.”

Her silence is important because it is in reaction to the dominant power structure and the people who feel emboldened by the anonymity of the Internet. It’s important because her silence comes in the face of normalized patriarchy and rape culture.

It’s important because it comes from an industry where women struggle for acceptance, as noted in this Tumblr post by Julie Pagano, who recounts being discouraged by teachers, employers, conference speakers and co-workers for pursuing her technological goals.

And it’s important because this is another example of how social media is being used to silence someone. This silencing is a key issue to address with students, who face cyber-bullying, in addition to face-to-face bullying. This month, we’ve had the backlash against Adria Richards and  Steubenville  rape victim “Jane Doe,” but each month—each week, each day—we can find similar stories.

Each of these stories, when I come across them, breaks my heart. The people being victimized in these stories deserve their humanity, their voice, their space.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a group of seventh- through ninth-graders in a writing club I facilitate to write stories in tweets. A couple of students tried to create short fairy tale-like stories. But one person took the challenge as an opportunity to simulate a Twitter fight. One handle made a racist comment, and another handle called it out. The Twitter fight devolved into the first handle threatening to rape and kill the second handle. This didn’t stop in the writer’s story until the second handle made the decision to block the first handle.

This Twitter fight, when I read it, was all too familiar.

“It’s basically what happens on Twitter,” the writer said, “except when people are posting things like how much they hate their teacher or where they’re going out for food.”

I took the last few minutes of our weekly hour-long workshop to talk about responsible use of social media. I reminded these youth, as I’m sure they’ve heard before, that what they post online never really goes away. I asked if they’d ever been harassed online. Only one, who isn’t on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Tumblr, or other social networking sites, said no.

Editor’s Note: Adria Richards has broken her silence since this blog was written. Here are her thoughts.

Clift is a writer and works as a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs focused on seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional educational settings.