What Tumblr Taught Me About Social Issues

I’m a staunch believer that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” If you genuinely enjoy something, you should not feel guilty about it (ahem — assuming it’s legal and doesn’t hurt anybody). I used to consider Velveeta Macaroni & Cheese, Nicki Minaj’s music, and A&E’s Intervention my guilty pleasures, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I will gladly proclaim my love for them all without an ounce of shame.

What I might consider my last true guilty pleasure is something that I try not to bring up in conversation ever, but I definitely spend some time on it every day: Tumblr.

Tumblr is difficult to explain, especially because it might be the most antisocial of all social networks. It’s a blogging site with some similarities to Twitter (reblog = retweet), but rather than 140 characters of text, just about anything can be shared. It also has an air of exclusivity, even though the number of users is fast approaching those of Twitter. Most people don’t share their URL with the public or even follow people they know in real life. They just follow people with similar interests and pray nobody from school or work finds their blog.

When I first joined, I was mostly interested in fitspiration blogs. You know, thigh gaps, recipes for zucchini noodles, the ABC diet, etcetera. I quickly grew out of that garbage (thank goodness) and started to feel like I was part of an actual community with its own messed up sense of humor and language.

This is the part that’s kind of a guilty pleasure — the fact that I meant to start an inspirational fitness blog, but now I’m finding endless entertainment in something as stupid as “yard sard”. Why is that still so funny to me? I have no idea and it’s not something I ever want to have to explain in actual words. Just leave me alone to laugh at this nonsense.

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Anyway, while shamefully reblogging the newest memes (that was hard to type), I somehow learned a lot about social issues. My mind has been completely changed on a number of important topics and now I’m kind of a feminist killjoy, but I’d have it no other way.

Lesson #1: Reverse racism doesn’t exist, but white privilege does.

“Reverse racism”, i.e. racism against white people, is not a thing. I would have fought you on this five years ago, because it seems like if someone is being judged based on their race (think “white girls love Starbucks & Uggs” jokes), that it is racism by definition. Not so.

First, I was thinking about racism all wrong. I grew up thinking that racism was easy to spot because it’s so blatant and offensive. Actually, most racism is structural, invisible to those of us who are not impacted by it. It’s an entire system that was built for us — white people — and for nobody else. We don’t see our privilege because we don’t have to — we’re not faced with it everyday. I never think of whiteness as part of my identity because white is the default — on TV, in magazines, in political offices. Anyone else is a hyphenated American and is defined by their non-whiteness. If that doesn’t make you rethink everything you’ve ever known, then I don’t know what will.

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As soon as I understood this basic truth, I was able to see that nobody can be racist against white people. People can certainly have prejudice against me because I’m a white girl, but they can’t be racist against me because racism is prejudice from a position of power. Not to mention, being the butt of a joke because I like Starbucks and can’t dance is nothing compared to being denied job interviews, college admissions, and being labeled a “thug” for absolutely no reason at all. Racism is much bigger and scarier than any frat boy or white girl jokes will ever be.

Lesson #2: The actual meaning of feminism.

Five years ago, I was also clueless about feminism. I felt like feminism was demeaning to women, actually. Why do I need a whole movement to fight for me? I’m strong on my own!

Like Taylor Swift, I eventually realized the error of my ways; I have been a feminist all along. The basic tenet of feminism is very simple: men and women are equals.

Within feminism, there are several sub-issues that include trans rights, rights for women of color, and men’s rights (yep, the patriarchy hurts men, too). All of these and more are under the umbrella of what’s called “intersectional feminism” — the study of how different forms of oppression intersect and impact each person differently.

Everyone’s feminism is different because everyone’s experiences are different, but in the end, feminism is for everyone. If you call yourself a “humanist” because you’re pro-everybody, then you’re actually a feminist. Welcome!

Lesson #3: Sex and gender are not the same.

There is a world of difference between “sex” and “gender”. Sex is a biological state, or the difference between having a penis and vagina. If you have a vagina, your sex is female, and if you have a penis, your sex is male. Sometimes people are born intersex.

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Gender has nothing to do with the physical body because it is a social construct. If your sex is female and you feel comfortable living as a female, then you are cisgender because your sex matches your gender. The same goes for males.

For people whose sex does not match their gender (i.e., how they feel and are most comfortable identifying), they might identify as transgender or agender or something else entirely.  They don’t actually have to choose one side of the binary male/female: a person can be both, neither, or somewhere in between. It’s completely fluid and there is no box that you have to be in.

I had never even heard the term “cisgender” before Tumblr, probably because it’s considered the “default”. Just like I never had to think about my whiteness, I had never been forced to examine my gender. But for a lot of people, gender is a huge issue that they grapple with daily.

Ultimately, Tumblr has taught me to be open to new points of view. It’s a platform where people from all different backgrounds can debate these issues and learn from each other, and it is the privileged who must listen to and learn from the marginalized. Tumblr gives us a great space to do that, even if it is communicated through strange Tumblr-specific language or memes.