The lie of the tortured artist

I remember falling in love with being a tortured artist. It was romantic, dramatic, and the truest thing in the world. All my favourites lived lives as intense as their art – one mirroring the other until, tragically early, their life’s thread was cut and their stories ended. The small portfolios they left behind were genius. Perfect, if unfinished. Which somehow made them even more beautiful.

As a young artist with mental health issues it was easy to spin myself into that narrative, to let my illness sweep me into this dramatic despair that engulfed every part of me and what I made. My life’s path seemed like those of the greats, and the self indulgence of that idea was as addictive as it was destructive. Take the raw, wriggling guts and slather them unedited onto the nearest absorbable surface. That was art. I was in love with being tortured. It made me truer, better, sharper, or so I felt.

It was bullshit. Being unwell, physically or mentally doesn’t make your art better. All it means is that you are an artist with mental illness.

Suffering is not the price of entry to creativity.

If we as artists believe our suffering is a part of creativity, then we are selling ourselves short. Mental illness diminishes capacity, capability and perspective for all aspects of life, including artistic practice. If we believe that our unwellness keeps us making (or keeps what we’re making good), then there’s a romance to avoiding treatment, to actively pursuing poor mental health. And exquisite pain to frame with beautiful words and wear with pride.

It took experiencing chronic physical illness for me to separate my mental illness from my art, but it’s been one of the best things I have done for myself creatively. It wasn’t something that happened quickly – it took years of me working at it to remove my art and mental health from being associated in my head. I had to retrain myself to find positive paths to creativity that didn’t tour through the dumpster fire that was the depressed parts of myself. (BTW, I don’t recommend this pathway for anyone, it was just a pleasant side-effect for me while dealing with chronic illness)

Finding new role models and new ways

While the bright stars that burned out were awe-inspiring and emotional, for every one of them there are at least 10 artists I adored who lived very stable lives with long careers. As my health improved the idea of being in a lover’s pact with my own mental illness became less appealing, and the pathway towards stable health and a stable art practice became something I could realistically strive for.

I’m not a story, I’m a person. I don’t have to live my life as if it’s art. I can be boring and stable in order to provide myself with the space and flexibility to be creative. I’m now in love with looking after my mental health – with finding stability and strength in my routines, in caring for myself and giving myself space to breathe.
In breaking free of the seduction of the tortured artist trope I take better care of myself, and I’m also making work I’m much happier with than when I let my guts be the whole story.

There’s a lot of pain in the world. For me, making art that glorifies and indulges in unhealthy practice doesn’t ring true anymore. There’s strength in stability, in pursuing creativity free of the panic and torture mindset I’d grown up with. While I do believe my mental health will be something I must consciously focus on my whole life, it’s very rewarding to look at where I am in my art now and feel good about what I’m making, and why.

Visits and habits

Finishing visits

So, I’ve just finished my latest autobio comic, Visits. I’m quite happy with it. You should read it if you haven’t already.


I had a lot of fun making this comic. I explored some new techniques, including overlaying traditional Edo patterns within the panels. I also watched all of Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated TV series, which will forever be associated with this comic for me. Probably a weird combo to anyone else…preview115p15



This is my third comic exploring my Japanese heritage. I felt a little guilty leaving it on an open note, but then again I feel like I’m still growing and learning about this aspect of my identity, especially at the moment.

It still feels weird to be doing autobio stuff. I feel oddly selfish putting myself in the centre of my work and getting people to look at it. I worry it’s not something others will understand or be able to access or see any value in. But it’s very cathartic material to make and it’s helping me to process a lot of things lately, so I’ll keep going. If you read and enjoy my autobio stuff I really appreciate it, so thank you. <3


After five or so years of making short comics I’m starting to get a good feel for what kind of a storyteller I want to be. I’m learning what habits and patterns work for me, and I’m pretty happy with the work I’m producing. I’ve got a good in-production flow going. But there’s always areas where I can improve.

Whenever I finish something I inevitably get sad about it. The thing I was making is now Done, and there’s now nothing in the space where there once was a big all-consuming or nearly-all-consuming something. Sometimes once I’m Done, I can struggle to pick up and start on the next thing, and I end up in an overlong phase of art-lethargy. My drawing output drops and I throw myself into my self care, which lately has been TV and games and not much else. I revert into sponge mode, and not the useful absorbing and learning sponge, just the soggy, sedentary sponge.

This time I didn’t want to drop all the way to 0. So while I’m giving myself some well-needed mulling time to plan my next comic I’m working on ways I can improve. Mostly this involves spending time on sites like posemaniacs, or going through material like Andrew Loomis drawing books (good content, but steeped in sexism and racism. I find the non-racist diagrams useful). I’m also reading. I’ve got a lot of really wonderful books and comics to read through.



It’s working. I feel like I’m learning a lot while still getting a break from the intensity of making a comic. I’m sure whatever comic I end up working on next, whether it’s more in my autobio collection or something else, it’ll be informed by all the good learning I’m doing now.
Follow me on twitter – You’ll get to keep up with my latest sketches, comic scribbles and thoughts.

Stories, styles, and character design

Drawing for comics

Drawing is fluid. It’s influenced so easily by mood, surroundings, tools, and visual diet. I feel like my drawing style shifts like the seasons or even the weather. I can feel like hard lines one day, then soft watercolours, then the lineless smoothness of oil textures. My preferences are iridescent and shift with the slightest movement of thought. And while this can be a strength for single illustrations, it’s not possible for me to use this ever-shifting array of style-moods in comics.

The visual style of a comic is a crucial part of the storytelling vocabulary. A switch from hard lines to soft watercolours needs to have a similar shift in the mood of the story, not just the mood of the author at the time of creating that particular piece of the story. It’d be jarring, and irritating to be buffeted around on the moods of the author like that.*

Comic making (at least how I do it) is a relatively nonlinear process. Or more often it’s a series of loops. I’ll run through the story in notes, then in drafted words and thumbnails, then with pencils, inks, colours, and finishing with lettering. It’s a long distance track race, it takes time. And since I am a human person with thoughts, feelings, and emotions, I’ll likely have quite a few while I’m making the comic.

So I need to establish rules for myself before I can step into the turbulent waters of making a comic. Otherwise my moods will run a stylistic storm through my work and it’ll feel like chaotic debri to anyone trying to read it. Establishing style guides is standard in any large scale piece of work, especially if you need to work on it with more than one person. Even working by myself it’s important I have strong references in place so I can trust I’m doing the best visual storytelling. Otherwise I’m prone to getting distracted experimenting with a new brush or shading technique I saw somewhere, or changing stylisations or abstractions partway through.


The biggest thing about making sure the story of a comic shines through for me, is the characters.


Character design has always been a favourite thing of mine. I love thinking of new costumes, new personalities, new relationships and the way these things intersect and could be represented within their designs. In Sunshine I made the conscious choice to go for swooping curls and curves with her design, combining with the A-line of her yellow frock to make her feel like someone who’d stepped out of the sunlight. I went for ovals and angles to make up the narrator character, and his soft brown colour palette alluded to his grounded nature. The comic itself played with this, using only yellow, brown and blue to colour the story.

But for all the thought that I put into it, and all the expression I felt I captured within Sunshine, I still feel like there was something missing from the way I illustrated the characters (I’m allowed to say this, because I wrote Sunshine in 2012 so it’s officially old now and critique is how we improve). There’s just something about the way that they’re represented on the page, how they hover and shift slightly off-model, the way they interact with each other and within the context of their story. It’s just not exactly right, but I couldn’t at the time put my finger on exactly why that was.


I’ve done a lot of learning, a lot of reading, and a lot of drawing since Sunshine, and I’m hoping I can use some of that to improve. And I think I can actually say that I have.

The new story



Here’s the first sketches I did of my new characters for my new fiction story, Circuits and Veins. It’s probably going to be a bit longer than the comics I’ve been putting out recently, but I haven’t gotten into the actual writing part of the project yet so I don’t know. Their names here are Olive and Ai-chan and here they’re fresh baby characters still finding their feet.

I like them a lot, and the story I built around them is something I’m really pleased with and think will be really interesting. But when I look at these sketches and tests I get the same not-quite feeling I had with Sunshine, and I just know that I need to push a bit harder this time and get past that. I tried, but I got more of the same. Or slightly different, but same result.

It’s nice, they’re nice. But I felt like this story needed something more than nice. I need something more than nice.

So I put them to sleep for a while and worked on other stuff. They’ve been mulling slowly for a long time, and I’ve kept learning and thinking about how it is I want them to look and behave. In between thinking about building on my autobio comic stuff while I was in Japan, I was also thinking about these two. Now I think I’m finally ready to pick this story up again.


I’ve completely redesigned Olive. She’s now called Yuki (幸, meaning Happiness). I imagined her character to be relatively socially outgoing, so I wanted her extroversion to be more aparent in her design and attitude. I made her clothes bigger, so she’s visibly taking up more space than her frame. I wanted to keep her textured hair, but since her design was going loud shape-wise, I felt that a more monotone colour palette was a good way to balance her design visually. I also wanted to make her a bit more visibly Japanese.

I still really like the design for Olive, and she will likely play a part in the story. But I think Yuki will be a more interesting lead/co-lead.

Ai’s design has stayed mostly the same, but she’s now much more visibly emotive. I really liked Ai’s initial design, but her personality has been hard to pin down, which for me made her harder to draw. As she’s an android, I wanted to avoid the absence of a personality that is a common trop with androids, especially girl ones. I wanted her to have a developed personality that suited her. I found it hard to even pick a stylistic way of representing her because it was hard to know exactly what part of her I was trying to represent. She was trying to be too much at once.


These are quick emotion tests to see how I felt giving Ai more space to visually emote, rather than hide it. I like where this is going, and I feel like I understand what I want to do with her character a lot more than the coy, slightly absent android I was first sketching.

The visible expression of their personalities in their designs makes it much easier for me to put them together, and much more interesting things seem to be happening than were before.

together circuits-and-veins

Yeah, I like this.

Perhaps it’s more of an attitude shift on my part than anything else. But I think this is definitely the best thing for this project, and I think it shows how much I’ve grown as a comic artist since Sunshine.

Now, back to drawing!

* There are exceptions, and I’d potentially like to try something a bit more chaotic one day, but it’ll be on a day where I have a story that suits this being incorporated into the storytelling.

Japan Adventure, part one.

It’s very surreal to finally be standing in Japan. Since before I even booked the flights I’d been imagining what it’d be like to get to be here, and sometimes even felt like I’d already taken the holiday.


Landing in Narita at 6am

I feel a mixture of comfort and alienation. There’s parts of myself that I get to express here that it’s more difficult to express in New Zealand. I feel a comfort being surrounded by the language, and the culture that I’ve obviously somehow absorbed at least bits of during my life. This comfort throws into sharp relief the bits where I get it absolutely painfully wrong. But most people are kind and very helpful, which is soothing when I find myself out of my depth with the language or customs.


Jake and I on the 30th floor of a building we got lost in.

I’m pleased with how much my study has paid off. I felt like I hadn’t been as diligent as I could or should have been, but even the work I have done has helped immensely. I feel like I understand a little more every day, and I’m getting more confident in speaking, even if I know there will be big gaps and mistakes in my language.
A few notes so far:

The Ryokan we stayed at first was lovely. Our room was just enough space to fit us side by side with a bit of space at either end. Both Jake and I love being in closed spaces, and with space being at a premium everywhere in Japan we’re definitely going to be a lot more comfortable.
Ghibli museum was beautiful but very different to what I imagined. While there were homages to each of the movies, the museum itself has its own life and history. It’s compact and the inside feels like an amazing old villa with very Ghibli-esque touches. The building has a beautiful atmosphere and every detail has been crafted with care and purpose. The stained glass windows that frame the building feature characters from all the films and I’m sure many people had hunted them out.

All of the captions are in Japanese only, but there’s enough of an atmosphere that the meaning is easy to understand. I almost had a wee cry in front of the watercoloured storyboards and the recreation of Miyazaki’s office space.

There’s so much I need to work on, but I always knew that’d be the case. This trip isn’t the beginning or the end of my relationship with Japan or my Japanese heritage.
I’ve been stressed and nervous and sweatier than I have ever been in my life, but it’s all been worth it. The people have been kind and helpful, and it’s been great to see the country through my own two eyes, It feels like a weird sort of homecoming where I know I’m home but no one else does.
It’s getting easier every day. We’re in Kobe now and it’s got such a wonderful energy to it, I’ll have more to say about this second leg of our trip soon,
If you’re interested in pictures, you can follow along on my Instagram account.

Good things, Japan and New Stories

Good things

It’s been an excellent week for my illustration work. I had a piece in with the Tiny Travelling Gallery, Art From a Square Planet exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington (which featured giclee prints of Folding Kimono), and my comic Concrete published by Square Planet went on sale at Armageddon. I met a lot of great people, saw a lot of old friends and generally feel pretty good about where my work is heading.


On Wednesday I fly to Japan. I’ll be writing and tweeting and whatevering while I’m over there, complete with pictures. This is an important trip for me for a number of reasons, which I’ve written about before. I’m taking my little brother Jake, who is the same kind of dork as me, so I’m sure it’s going to be a great time.

New Stories

I’m working on two big things while I’m in Japan. More stuff along the lines of Folding Kimono, and a fiction story that seems to annoyingly want to be a graphic novel. The Graphic novel is still germinating and might keep doing that for a long time. This trip will definitely be giving me material for at least these two projects, and I’m sure a bunch more I haven’t even thought about yet.

Old stories

I plan to do some work discovering old stories alongside building new ones. There’s too much to fit into this trip, but I plan to at least get myself grounded. It will definitely be a few trips-worth of stuff to discover., I’m excited to learn more about this branch of my family and find out more about my grandmother and her life before she moved to New Zealand. I’m looking forward to meeting my great uncles and their families, who I only know from photographs.

It’s difficult to think about anything else, but there’s still a lot of regular real life maintenance I have to get through before my flight takes off. Only three days to go now!

New Zealand has a racism problem

This post is written in the wake of racist statements from Phil Twyford and the New Zealand Labour Party. For more information, please read this by Keith Ng and this comic from Everything is Nothing By Itself on Tumblr.

New Zealand has a racism problem and it affects everything in this country, it always has. The British brought their prejudices across with them along with their Victorian ideals and industries and they’ve embedded in the land here – most of it illegally confiscated from the rightful owners and still not returned.

If you look at New Zealand history the racism is visible in the language, in the othering and distancing and control placed on those who were different. It is every piece of legislation designed to strip Maori of rights (that’s most of them). It’s the Chinese immigrants having to pay tax just to be allowed here, where no such restriction was placed on white settlers. It’s the fact this was only abolished in 1944 and only apologised for in 2002.

It is decades of struggle in the face of legislation and rule-making in favour of a particular set of cultural norms. It’s in our current Prime Minister telling us that New Zealand was settled peacefully, and our current opposition party doubling down on painting Chinese-sounding names as bogeymen, after the houses that rightfully belong to ‘hard working New Zealanders’.

New Zealand has a problem with Chinese people. Families who have lived here for decades are called immigrant and a problem and told both explicitly and implicitly they don’t belong here, even though it’s as much their home as anywhere could possibly be a home.

It’s strikingly obvious when you compare this to the white foreign nationals who move over and are accepted, accents and all. Welcomed and asked what they like best about us please please tell us, your approval is everything. It’s a refusal to acknowledge the brown faces who make up our cities, unless it’s to blame, ridicule or regurgitate hateful phrases at them. And while this might not be your experience, while you as a white person might never have said or done anything directly hateful to an Asian person or a Pasifika person or a Maori person, it is nonetheless happening every single day in this country, and probably to people you know. Maybe they’re telling you right now how hard this is and how much it hurts.

My family is not Chinese, but we are East Asian. It’s in the surname I choose to wear and in my father’s face and my grandmother’s accent, even though it’s been over 50 years since she moved here. The otherness was thrown as rocks at her and as slurs at my father, and while I am privileged to look white it cuts me in a thousand tiny ways as I try to move around as myself in this country, attempting to connect to who I am and where I am from. My name gets mispronounced or unpronounced (I can hear people avoiding to say it), and I am left feeling like Tinkerbell, slowly starving because the vowels in my name are inconvenient for Western mouths.

Once the topic of my ethnicity is raised things go from silence to choreography. The lines are so routine it almost feels like people must be reading from the same hidden script. “I knew you were something” “On your mother’s or your father’s side? And his mother or his father?” I always want to ask if they know a half Japanese man or an elderly Japanese woman and they’re wondering if we’re related. People do punnett squares to decide just how Asian I am, and their ruling is always final. I’m categorised by phenotype like some biological specimen, I have no right of reply. Once they’ve made up their mind, that’s the topic settled. I’m pinned down.

This is only a very small piece of what it means to have an Asian-sounding name in New Zealand. It’s not always friendly or comfortable. And because I have a white-looking face my experience is milder than most. Racism Lite™, a study in microaggressions from your friends and co-workers.

This is why it is unacceptable when our politicians, our representatives, stand up and tell the country that people with our names and names like them are the problem in our country. It inevitably means eyes point to us and yet again we have to say we live here, we’re from here, we’ve made our lives here.

I want to live in a New Zealand that respects and understands all the facets of herself, but we are built on a colony that broke indigenous backs and we have to work every single day to undo this. White New Zealand is intolerant of those who are different, who present a story outside their designed narrative. As a person descended from colonists and immigrants it’s my job to work to dismantle this oppression every day, as the damage done only began in the 1800s – it has continued in many different forms and stages since then.

We need to stop being scared of using the words that describe this. Especially the word racism. We can’t dance around and pretend it’s only a thing in the super really bad cases. Racism is not just hatred, it is a system and structure designed to favour one group of people over another. In New Zealand this group is undeniably white New Zealanders, and those of us who fall into this category need to work a hell of a lot harder to understand what this really means.

Expense, Heritage, and Radiation

Visiting Japan is a big deal to me. A really big deal. It’s big because it’s expensive and far away, and until recently it felt completely cut off from me. It’s big because the Japanese part of my identity floats like an island desperately looking for home. It’s big because this year is the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, the aftermath of which my grandmother witnessed, and which has undeniably shaped the course of her life.


Money has always flowed through my life like water. Mostly in trickles and occasionally streams, it’s been enough to keep me fed, safe and clothed. Comfy if you sat just right and didn’t question the lumpy blankets. Necessities had to be planned to run out at different rates, and emergency overdraft penalties stung me nearly every pay. Any extra lining at the end of the pay cycle would go to the next-most-necessary thing, and the list was endless.

Japan was too expensive to even cost up. It wouldn’t fit within a pay packet and saving would be overtaken by essentials well before I reached any realistic goal. It felt superfluous to want something so decadent. Dream smaller, just put it towards nice sheets.

Now I’m working in a stable space and am afforded an income that will nourish the Japanese part of me. I keep wondering whether it’ll be taken away, but I’m reminded I’ve earned this, and I’m working hard. It’s feels more like luck than anything. The work’s the same, it’s only the stream that’s different.


The stubborn iron in my blood has been dragging at me like a compass point tugging north. It tells me ‘Japan’ and I say ‘Yes, I know’, when I don’t know. There’s big holes in my knowledge, my manners, my understanding. And I want to say ‘watashi wa nihonjin’ but it comes out sounding like ‘gaijin’ as my accent trips over the unfamiliar vowel sounds. And my voice is right, I’m foreign.

I can’t point to Japanese on my skin or face, but I can sometimes point to where ‘white’ isn’t. It’s funny, because they’re usually the points I hate the most about myself, and yet I wish wish wish sometimes I’d just be properly Japanese. Proper, complete. Like I’m missing three quarters of myself as I float away like an island, cutting what I am into slices that fit more completely with the story. Editing my heritage to suit my intended narrative.

But we all edit ourselves, right? Maybe it’s okay. History belongs to those who tell it.


I can really only describe it as an absence. It’s a big silence and pieces forever missing from my family. I’m on the periphery, where things are growing almost normal again, but this thing happened and it hollowed out so many many lives. I don’t understand and I don’t think I ever will. But I will go and I will stand with the people who still mourn, 70 years later, the worst thing their families ever saw.

I haven’t been before.

I don’t know what I am expecting.

I don’t know how I will feel.

This trip is getting rounded out with the fun frills of a holiday. I feel guilty as my original solemn purpose becomes couched in the cushiony joy of cute quirky must-sees, as my list fills with tourism. But no one can tell me this isn’t a pilgrimage. I might visit famous cats and sightsee and put on my best excited face for it all, but through all that a part of me still feels like it’s finally going home and I’m so grateful.

I know I will come back with different things than I intended to find, but I am lucky that this is unlikely to be the last time for a decade, like I thought not so long ago. I will be back to do more things, both the fun and the solemn. I will begin to know Japan in person, not just as imagined from a distance.

Thank you for reading Folding Kimono

Thank you for reading Folding Kimono. I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read any of my comics, but especially this one. It’s been an interesting and odd comic to work on, and I’m so overwhelmed and inspired by how many people have engaged with it, and have felt connected to the story I’m telling. Thanks especially to Chromacon, who decided it was worth 1st place in this year’s Chroma Art Awards (Joining 2013’s 1st place winner, Sunshine).

Writing autobiographical material is a weird experience for me. I’m accustomed to writing about myself and drawing myself, but it’s uncommon to combine the two. It feels strange to take parts of me that are raw and personal, and edit them for timing, content and flow the same way I do with my fictional stories. In a way I’m fictionalising myself, turning into an avatar through which to tell stories. I don’t dislike it, but it’s an odd experience.

Writing about my heritage is a lot more hurty than I was expecting. It’s difficult to explain to anyone who doesn’t have mixed heritage, but there’s often a lot of pressure to behave like just one of your cultures. In my case, I’m pressured to behave and act white most of the time, and I can get weird pushback sometimes when I want to talk about the Japanese parts of my heritage (which I’d prefer not to go into detail here).

I often feel like I’m overstepping my bounds, because I have been raised in a predominantly white culture, surrounded by white people, white media and white entertainment. It makes me feel inauthentic, even when discussing my own identity. A part of me wonders why I pursue my Japanese/mixed heritage at all, it’d be very easy to quietly leave it to one side of myself, and just bring it out for fancy dress parties when I’m in need of a good costume.

It’s decidedly harder to examine what it actually means to come from a mixed heritage background and how to proceed in the world after accepting and identifying with these parts of myself. It’s taken a lot of contemplation to gather myself to the place I am now, and I feel like this is only the very start of my journey. I want to bring all parts of me along equally, and one I’m committed to exploring exactly what this means in more depth. For me, this will mean more comics as one avenue of this exploration.

I have been so moved by hearing other people of mixed heritage (especially mixed Asian heritage) talk about how my comic made them feel. I had people telling me they’d never seen their experiences recorded so accurately, that the piece resonated very deeply within them. I made at least a couple of people cry. Tumblr reacted in overwhelming numbers to show they appreciate and care about this piece.

I am so glad that I have finished this comic, and so grateful to know it resonates with people. I am feeling more connected to my heritage and to the larger community than I ever have before in my life. I’m hoping that you will continue to listen to my voice as I talk about heritage and culture, and what they mean to me. I will continue to write with the best of my ability. In comics, in essays and anywhere else that will have me. And I’m always happy to hear from you, if you want to talk to me about your experiences.

Thank you so much everyone.


Internet freedom and the EFF’s anti-harassment statement

(This post was originally written for

I’d love to say that the statement EFF made on the 8th of January was anything but a disappointment, but it is. The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community. We’re watching people’s lives burn to the ground and the EFF brings a watering can filled with weak platitudes.

The Internet isn’t built for everyone

Internet freedom. It sounds pretty good on paper. An open and uncapturable internet with truly utopian beliefs and ideals about equality. In our rosiest narratives, the internet is one of the most incredible and liberating human inventions in recent history, and it’s certainly changing how we all live our lives. However, this utopian internet — a place where we can all live, work, socialise and act harmoniously together — has never and most likely will never exist. This is because the internet is largely built with the same patriarchal, cis, white male structures that “real world” societies are built with. It’s built from the same essential building blocks, and those blocks’ stresses, cracks and faults continue to harm the same people.

The internet is designed by and for straight, white, cis dudes. If you look at any of the startups currently vying for your valuable time and attention, you will see numbers of far, far more men than women and almost every single one of them will be white. The higher up you go, the whiter and more male it gets. If you follow the money that’s funding these ventures, you’ll notice a lot of them bear a striking resemblance to each other and also to a tall glass of milk.

White, hetero, cis male privilege is unaware of itself, but this is in part because it’s unaware of everyone else. And if these people are building our infrastructure, then there’s an awful lot of essential tools they’re missing because of their ignorance.

The places these people build are becoming increasingly more essential to our businesses, our work and our social lives, whether we like it or not. The dominance of platforms like Twitter and Facebook is strongly influencing we all use the internet and who can safely use the internet. When push comes to shove, the system protects the people who designed it for their own use; but everyone else is constantly placed at risk both in their online activities and in their physical space.

The thorny topic of harassment

Harassment was the hot-button word of 2014. It seemed like things reached some magical media tipping point and all of a sudden, women receiving rape and death threats online counted as proper “real world” news. But as many of us who are the targets (or potential targets) of this kind of harassment know, this behaviour isn’t something that’s just sprung up magically in the last year. It’s the festering muck that’s been lingering at the bottom of potentially every page, probably since the comment section was invented.

Being a woman on the internet is like playing with a ticking time bomb where you can’t see the timer. It could go off any second, or never, or in five years. It could go off because of something you said or someone else, or something completely unrelated to you. It could be because you like a hobby mostly boys like, or you’ve written that you’re fed up with inequality and sexism, or you’d just like a woman’s face to be on a bank note. It’s all stuff that it’s well within our rights as humans to discuss and have opinions about. But if you do so as a woman, you risk being hit with a harassment bomb.

When a harassment bomb detonates, it ruins lives. Private information is shared, companies boycotted, parents’ phone numbers called. Death threats are sent to conventions where victims plan to speak. Victims are blamed and accused of being “professional victims” all the while, the harassers push for their own financial and social profit.

It’s a constant struggle to write, share, and operate normally in the face of constant harassment. Not all of us are strong enough to stand against a tsunami of verbal and visual effluence day after day, and still manage time to build, construct, run, and manage a business. It’s exhausting even to witness from a safe distance, let alone live through. (Those that do manage, let me just say that I love you and everything you bring us, and your voice means the entire world to me. But I do wish you didn’t have to spend so much of your brilliance keeping your safety watertight.)

Since the targets of online harassment are most often marginalised people, this means we are losing voices. Targets are more likely to be women, of colour, trans, disabled, poor, or informally educated. Usually a mix of things because humans don’t tend to sit nicely in categorised boxes. Not everyone who faces this harassment can cut it, and they shouldn’t have to in order to do a simple thing like be active on the internet. We have no idea how many people have quit or won’t even start down this path because of harassment.

What’s wrong with the EFF’s picture

The EFF as an organisation stands up for a lot of the same things that I want to stand up for. Removal of restrictive DRM, power to people instead of governments, critical looks at spying laws and tackling issues of security. But when it comes to matters that involve harassment or the internet’s own structural biases, they are comparatively quiet. Since harassment silences and self-censors so many of our most marginalised voices, I would assume that an organisation like the EFF would jump onto the issue with all guns blazing. They have commented in the past in small doses, but they often take a relatively conservative approach in order to protect the “real” issue of actual proper free speech.

I’d love to say that the statement EFF made on the 8th of January was anything but a disappointment, but it is. The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community. We’re watching people’s lives burn to the ground and the EFF brings a watering can filled with weak platitudes.

What we are seeing with online abuse can’t be mistaken for a disagreement of opinion. It’s not a couple of people having a swear-off or even just one person losing their cool at another. It’s constant, structured campaigns of active and malicious behaviour, much of it already illegal under existing law. I’m confused as to why it’d even be controversial to take a strong stand against it.

The EFF blames victims. The focus of their suggestions is on potential victims and users needing to learn self-protection, rather than addressing the very clear underlying systemic and cultural elements that allow harassment to flourish. They discount that many victims do already protect themselves — as much as online systems can possibly allow. Even with significant amounts of filtering, muting and blocking, their time and energy is being diverted from enjoying their time online to a constant battle for space and safety.

The EFF say that if only Twitter unlocked its API, third party creators could develop better tools to protect users. And yes, that’s a possibility. But for this possibility to be viable, someone needs to devote an awful lot of their time, skill and energy just to ensure a platform becomes marginally safer, which Twitter should be doing for its users in the first place.

Companies that profit from our data should be doing more to keep us as users safe. We should be able to have systems in place to protect us, built by full-time staff who are paid a living wage. We shouldn’t have to donate our own time to build such systems for ourselves, on top of whatever other work we need to do to keep ourselves and our families safe, fed, and sheltered. It’s your system that’s broken; you need to fix it. Pay someone to fix it. Put it in your business roadmaps. Hire people who know about this stuff. Stop building on top of the same structures that punish marginalised people.

It seems to be the EFF’s position that harassment needs to be condoned to some extent if we want free speech. If we get too tough on harassment, it’ll mostly end up getting used to punish free speech by governments instead of harassment at all. This idea that censorship trickles down is ridiculous, because marginalised people are already facing self-censorship of their work on a daily basis out of fear of harassment. It’s already happening, and we’re not being helped or protected except by each other.

The internet is white. The internet is male. Most of the internet speaks English. If you aren’t or don’t do these things, you are actively and continuously put under pressure to ensure conformity. If you continuously fail to conform, you are sent harassing messages, death and rape threats, and have your whole life twisted upside down for you and then blamed for it.

I love the internet. It’s my home. It’s where I’ve met most of my friends and how I keep connected with my family. It helps me to connect with new clients and keeps me informed of current events. It’s been a teacher, a friend, and my external memory component (effectively making me a cyborg). It improves my life in little and incalculable ways every day. However, the dark, hostile side can’t be ignored or tolerated. In order for the internet to be the best internet it can be, it needs to be better for everyone. We need to all be safe online, not just those of us who know how to protect ourselves or are lucky enough to never be targets. We need it to be a priority of the bigger fish, of our governments and of our advocacy organisations. We deserve to be safe.