@KasaiRex on Baltimore, Tweets That Point at Uncomfortable Truths, and Perfectionism

Kasai Rex is a writer living in his hometown of Baltimore. Analyzing race, gender, and class in America and abroad, his essays and reviews have appeared on Good, Salon, Vice, Abernathy Magazine, Baltimore City Paper, and Blunderbuss. This week I spoke with Rex about three of his favorite tweets, plus righteous indignation, perfectionism, humility, and why he won’t stick to just one tone on Twitter.

Rex: This was less than a month after I saw local and national news vilify black people en masse after my city (Baltimore) erupted into isolated riots. I know sarcasm on the internet is in no short supply, but seeing pics of white bikers just chillin’ with cops after nine people had been killed in some kind of turf war, and noticing them not being called thugs or animals, the media and police’s racial double standard was reaffirmed for me. I try to stay out of the righteous indignation zone as best as I can, but a lot of times, if I can tweet something clever or funny that also points to an uncomfortable truth that many try to avoid thinking about, there’s value in that. Stuff like the media and politicians saying rap music and absentee fathers were the reason people in Bmore rioted (not that they were egged on by cops after a tense weekend, not that Freddie Gray had been killed, not that the city is as segregated as it ever was) fed into this narrative that a lot of non-black people already want to buy into anyway: That we’re just looking for any reason to fuck shit up, that we’re naturally criminalistic and even animalistic. For me, and a lot of people way brighter and funnier than I am, social media has become a vital bit of counter-programming. The TL really can help me stay sane in a rather insane moment in our nation’s own timeline.

Do you use other social media as much as you use Twitter? What do you think is it about Twitter specifically that’s made it the go-to place for talking about (and addressing through humor) the ongoing racial injustice across the US?

I’ve been using Facebook more since the riot and uprising in Baltimore, re-posting things that I feel need to be seen, sharing my writing, talking to white people terrified that their privilege is gonna land them on the wrong side of history if left unchecked. It’s been cool. I’ve seen the ugly side of people who at least looked pretty in their profile pics, or in these dusty memories I have of them from high school or wherever last I saw them. I took off work the day of the rioting (or rather, I “called out black”) and kinda watched the shit unfold on a pair of screens. I could see the smoke from that burning CVS a mile away from me, and the National Guard armory the troops rolled out from each day that week is next to my building. Twitter really helped me see through all the bullshit, from our cops inciting the shit to most local and national media propping up this thinly veiled racist narrative swirling around inherent black criminality and the need for order rather than justice. I don’t think I turned the TV on at all on April 27th. I had people DMing me on Twitter, asking if I was OK, which was really cool. I was fine. I stayed inside because my mom asked me not to go out there, knowing I was compelled to as a writer and sometimes photographer. For the city I grew up in to be on everyone’s minds, around the world, in that way was simultaneously bizarre and beautiful in a way. I think the appeal of Twitter as a forum for the sort of real talk we’re seeing lies in the brevity, the focus that comes from it, and the immediacy. You avoid the subterfuge and layered narcissism of some other sites. There’s plenty of bullshit on Twitter, but I have also seen some industrial-strength honesty on my timeline that I think people are too self-conscious about to share some other places, even IRL. I know we’ve been to the moon and all that, but that so much can be said with so few words is crazy to me. I used to hate that “brevity is the soul of wit” business, but Twitter has weirdly helped me be cool with jettisoning clunky sentences or paragraphs in my writing. Or just scrapping a piece altogether. Between hooking up with gigs and getting feedback or support from other writers, Twitter and my creative process are intertwined. I look at the old heads who wrote before the Internet as wizards almost. But that’s cool, because I can feel like a cyber-wizard these days, which is really all 10 year old me ever wanted. In your experience, are jokes with the power to make people uncomfortable by exposing them to a truth harder or easier to write than jokes that might appear less confrontational? I’d say easier for sure, or at least it comes more naturally. I tweeted “Taylor Swift reminds me of a villain from one of the Bring It On straight-to-dvd sequels” when I got frustrated with her White Feminist set-tripping regarding Nicki Minaj. I don’t delude myself into thinking I’ll single-handedly take down someone like that with a damn tweet. I don’t think I have any sort of grasp on balancing things as far as this goes. I think everyone has that internal gauge for for how far to take it to get the point across, some are just calibrated differently than others. It really depends on the situation, and my disposition. If social media has flooded me with images of black death for days on end, I tend to be a little less comedic and more direct. I’ve had some people suggest that I stick to one tone, but I really don’t know if I could hack that. I could easily just be a dude online who’s fired up 100% of the time, but that’s not me. I like to fuck around and not bum out all the time. Everyone’s dynamic in that way I feel. Otherwise, you burn out. Or at least I do if I go too hard in the paint for too long on the outrage tip. Yet sometimes, it’s pretty apparent that people (especially those in positions of privilege) need to be smacked in the mouth, so to speak. I’m not a revolutionary by any means, but something I’ve come to understand, primarily through my writing, but also through Twitter and the like is that I have a voice. And more importantly, it’s one voice among many that can form a chorus to sing “Oh hell no!” or “Wake the fuck up!” I don’t have to get 1,000 faves for saying something poignant to feel validated, even if my ego tells me otherwise. Writing about personal stuff and having strangers tell me what I wrote helped them in some way is like the ultimate trip. It’s even cooler to see other people glo up by way of sharing their experiences and thoughts, people that you might not have ever heard from were it not for the inter-connectivity of this social media stuff.

I’ve struggled with the burden of perfectionism since I was maybe seven years old, never quite being able to accept that one 95% I got on a spelling quiz. With my writing, it’s been a process learning that perfectionism is just a fancy word for fear, specifically, the fear of being found out as imperfect (Imagine that?). In the atmosphere of social media, I suppose the lesson’s more slow-going for me. I can’t stand Whole Foods. They use prison labor to farm tilapia and admitted to overcharging customers. Then they pull this asparagus water stunt. I had to show them (on Twitter). But there’s not much more confusing to the momentarily engorged ego that comes with a stream of faves than seeing a typo post-mortem. I joked in a reply that “crafting a fire tweet with a typo is akin to what it must feel like to raise a great kid who grows up to be a Republican.” But no number of quips could’ve brought that missing “a” in “aspargus.” A lot of people said they didn’t even notice (until I drew attention to it, naturally). Twitter is like the last bastion of my dying egotism, which peaked in my mid-20s, then crashed the fuck out when I hit rock bottom just before my 27th birthday. I’ve made a lot of changes, but it still shows up uninvited pretty consistently. With Twitter and with my writing, I’m still learning to not give a fuck about “nailing it” 100% of the time. I’ve learned a pseudo-mantra recently that what other people think of me is none of my business. But, as a writer trying to make a career out of the thing he’s best at and loves to do, that seven year old can still get nervous as fuck about sticking the landing. Busting my ass is still fun though.

Do you draft and/or delete your tweets?

I didn’t always draft them, but that’s become part of my routine now. I know I’m in trouble (e.g. getting too wrapped up in myself online, not writing like I should, not feeding my two hungry cats) if I have a dozen or so drafts on deck. I can be overly meticulous. Or I can have nothing in the draft folder and freak out, which is obviously silly, but in the moment, it’s everything.

I don’t often delete tweets that have already made it across the wire to the TL, but, I definitely 86 stuff as I’m writing it. Most often, it’s because I get this gut feeling that what I’m writing isn’t really worth even writing, or that it might be corrosive to my overall spiritual condition. I can really lose myself in self-righteous anger and just get really fucked up off of that. I think deleting tweets definitely has its place, beyond the racist tweets by corporate accounts around Cinco De Mayo vibe. Sometimes, you gotta let go of the ones you love, or just let other people have some piece of mind without your bullshit tripping them up.

I had an employer make me delete a tweet, one that got a lot of yellow stars. I caught feelings. I really took that personally. Like, “Do you know who the fuck I think I am?!” But in the end, I thought, yeah, I don’t wanna be this dude, let me delete this. I try not to tweet or write anything I wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Again, I can fail miserably at this, but I’m definitely not the angry little boy I used to be on social media when I was a drunken, coked-out mess a few years ago. Or, as one friend put it, a broke-ass Baltimore Kanye West.

If you see a typo in someone else’s tweet does it get on your nerves, or is it just a thing you notice in your own writing?

I get more perturbed at seeing typos in edited pieces on sites for big publications like The New York Times or The Guardian. I feel like my 4th grade composition teacher when I see usage errors or duplicated words. Unlike Facebook with its edit function, Twitter’s fire-and-forget (about changing what you just hurled out into the world) mode is great for chipping away at my ego, my thirst for perfection. I will see tweets by Respected Twitter Personalities with typos, that have Bieber-level numbers of favs and RTs and think, “Why not me?” It really isn’t a big deal if I look at it honestly. I tend to get more fired up about defective stuff slipping through in my writing. I wanna be known for my writing more so than my jokes or commentary on Twitter, right? Or are they all part of one package I’m presenting to the world? I’m asking, because I’m pretty sure I’m still just winging it, which is fine.

So I suppose I like all of these guys, at least as actors. I enjoyed most of the Marvel movies. Snowpiercer was cool. But less than a month before Avengers: Age Of Ultron was set to drop, I guess I just kinda got put off by the Unbearable White Maleness Of Geekdom, starring four dudes with the same name who are not geeks AT ALL. I’m not sure if my waning interest in comic book movies is solely down to the fact that these guys are plug-and-play interchangeable at this point, but that’s def a big part of it. A lot of the latest crop of comic book movies have been “Look at how extraordinary white people can be” effects reels, which is frustrating. Having been surrounded by white boys in private schools most of my life, this photo just kinda spoke to me. As in, the first thing that popped into my head when I saw it was a white girl in high school mistaking me for someone else and saying, well, “omg all black guys look alike.” This is also definitely a tweet where I realized that I have to do more to check my privilege being a Man Who Tweets. I know if I was a black woman tweeting this, I would’ve gotten so many vile responses. While I am BOTI (Black On The Internet), I can’t pretend that I’m not afforded headroom because I’m a cis hetero man. It sucks. A lot of voices more poignant than mine have been run off of sites like Twitter because of a climate of abuse that our social media tech-bro overlords seem to have no interest in mitigating. But yeah, a lot of white dudes look the same.

Did you yourself get any backlash or vile responses to this tweet?

Nothing so glaring that it fucked up my day, but again, I know that’s just because I’m a man. Of course there are black men online, activists, writers, entertainers, who have their dedicated trolls. I get the potshots from the people with dogs, guns and American/Confederate flags in their avis. But it’s not shit compared to the stuff I see tweeted at or retweeted by a lot of super bright and interesting women I follow, so I have no right to complain.

People get most pissed at me when I’m critical of America. I’m mystified by the sort of patriotism that renders one’s homeland unimpeachable in the court of public opinion, but here we are. Any tweet, no matter how funny, that contains the phrase “white people” also usually stirs up the trashboys. But they don’t seem to realize that I have a white friend, so it’s cool. Hell, I’ve got tons of white friends. I think a lot of people trip up on this sort of scarcity principle, whether it’s with feminism or discussing white supremacy or LGBTQ rights. People have this deep-seated, self-centered fear that one group getting something means they’re going to be deprived in some way. Not a profoundly original thought, but still, it’s so pronounced online. Some of these people are managers, parents, teachers. It’s frightening.

Are there specific courses of action you’ve taken to make sure you’re actively checking your privilege on Twitter?

If I don’t have experience with something, or my voice isn’t adding anything of depth and weight to a broader conversation, I try to just turn my Twitter fingers to some chicken fingers and stfu. I’m not always perfect at keeping my mouth shut, and I’ve definitely had women point out the error of my ways when a tweet goes wide. The question becomes, am I going to take the expertise that comes from someone else’s lived experience and grow from it, or am I gonna stay stuck on stupid and make life more difficult for myself and others? I try to squash dudes in threads I see where it’s just a vile Fedoraman well-actually’ing ad nauseum vs. half a dozen women making perfect sense. It’s beyond obvious that these tech companies don’t give a shit about protecting their users from abuse. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to change that, given techbros and Meninist dorks seem to share common DNA.

Beyond gender stuff, I’ve written things that have been like, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m not dead or in jail like I probably should be given how I was living a few years ago.” I try to be conscientious of that kind of thing, but not so hypervigilant that I risk diluting my truth. My story is just that: My story. That doesn’t mean I have to tear you down or come at you sideways to get my point across, to nullify your story because I think it competes with my own. This notion that you can’t go raw (in comedy or wherever) without offending someone is juvenile and anti-social, not to mention lazy.

All that said, I’m still very much a baby in all this. I can get geeked up off of RTs and favs and likes and kind words from strangers about stuff I’ve been fortunate enough to write. But I think when Drake said “Worrying ‘bout your followers, you need to get your dollars up,” that was like the realest shit to me. I would rather focus on dollars (for the stuff I write), or my serenity or my usefulness to people I love and care about than the whole Internet game. Easier said than done sometimes, because I guess we all want to craft that legacy, as a funny woman on Twitter or a stellar writer. Like I said, I’m still figuring it all out.

Jenny Nelson lives and writes in Brooklyn and works at Funny Or Die.

@KasaiRex on Baltimore, Tweets That Point at […]