Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based on the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.
—Combahee River Collective, 1986[1]

When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free. This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined.
—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, 2014[2]

Introduction

Neoliberal narratives of digital technologies and the internet have flourished in information and internet studies and suggest that the web is a panacea of social liberation and empowerment. These ideas have been refuted with much evidence by critical theorists in the field, yet work remains to be done in shifting the complex, global patterns of capital that build the material infrastructures of the information and communications revolution at the expense of Black life diasporically.

Meanwhile, in other academic and political arenas, the struggle to recognize multiple, interlocking systems of oppression has been ongoing for roughly 40 years. Brittney Cooper has already offered a detailed analysis of intersectional theory,[3] tracing the emergence of the term “intersectionality”[4] and its problematics and possibilities. Yet the term remains highly pertinent to the field of information and communication studies, which has not sufficiently responded to nor benefitted from intersectional lenses such as Black queer feminist intervention. Indeed, systems of interlocking oppression have rarely been a framework of analysis in the field of internet studies, overlooked in favor of dominant and frequently technologically deterministic perspectives that ignore interlocking, structural, and globalized sites of oppression.

What is potent about Black feminism is its focus on the liberation of Black women globally, intentionally linking Black women in the West with Black women in the Third World, and making interdependent experiences shaped by race, gender, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism a driving imperative for liberation movements to end oppression. This through line—from the pan-Africanist movement of the early twentieth century, to the Combahee River Collective—powerfully resurfaced in the 2014 statement by the three Black and queer women who founded the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is this lens that I wish to invoke in theorizing whether a liberatory, intersectional internet is even plausible, when contextualized in a Black feminist tradition.

In doing so, I explore the ways that the internet and its infrastructure are central to the myriad oppressive conditions facing Black life in the US and in the African diaspora. The goal of theorizing a liberatory, intersectional internet is to heighten awareness of how the global communications infrastructure is not just a site of communications affordance, nor is it made equally and equitably available to all people. On the contrary, it is implicated in a number of environmental and oppressive conditions for Black life. By making these connections more visible, my hope is to shift discourses away from simple arguments about the liberatory possibilities of the internet toward more critical engagements with how the internet is a site of power and control over Black life—a perspective relevant to scholars working in Black Studies, gender studies, and information studies.

Intersectionality was developed by many feminist, antiracist scholars and activists of color as a framework for deepening an analysis of power and oppression across multiple axes.[5] Intersectionality, however, has been woefully under-engaged as a way of thinking about the political economy of the internet and has, in fact, been separated from its Black feminist roots. To echo the critiques that Black women have levied at feminist movements over time, the pervasive under-commitment to the concerns of Black women as we intersect with, and are intersected by, technologies exemplifies a broader unwillingness among those promulgating mainstream discourses to engage with notions of racism, class, and sexuality in the fields of computer science, digital media studies, information, and technology studies.

We need more interdisciplinary research and theorizing about how a range of digital technologies are embedded with intersectional and uneven power relations, from the ways in which technologies are structured, through the range of engagements that happen on the web, to the materiality of digital communications infrastructures that include the role of the state and capital in the extraction, manufacture, and disposal of the digital.

Racial Identity and the Western Internet

Theorizing about the liberatory potentials of the internet for activism, communication, media-making, and culture is often the focus of research about the internet. Often, this research focuses on the United States and is without sufficient power critique. The study of race on the internet is not new and has been written about by many scholars who have argued that race is a meaningful part of the field, albeit under-theorized. The primary focus of research on race and the internet is in the US context and has largely engaged issues of representation and racial formation. In response to this, Jessie Daniels has called for more attention in the nascent field of digital media studies to critique what is truly missing; namely, discussions of white supremacy as the primary framework that structures research inquiries in the field.[6] Lori Kendall and André Brock, in particular, have also offered meaningful critiques of how normative presumptions of whiteness and maleness serve as a default identity of internet users.[7] Brock characterizes how technology design and practice are instantiated with racial ideologies:

[T]he Western Internet, as a social structure, represents and maintains White, masculine, bourgeois, heterosexual and Christian culture through its content. These ideologies are translucently mediated by the [internet] browser’s design and concomitant information practices. English-speaking internet users, content providers, policy makers, and designers bring their racial frames to their internet experiences, interpreting racial dynamics through this electronic medium while simultaneously redistributing cultural resources along racial lines. These practices neatly recreate social dynamics online that mirror offline patterns of racial interaction by marginalizing women and people of color.[8]

Brock argues that technology discourses normalize White masculinity as a presupposition for the prioritization of resources, content, and design of information and communications technologies (ICTs); in this, Brock’s work is representative of recent important scholarship that calls attention to the culture of the internet and how racism operates or structures it. Jerry Kang’s foundational 2000 paper addressing critical race theory and cyberspace was also among the first to look at the architecture of racial representation on the web, and the liberatory possibilities thereof, which unfortunately, were never fully achieved as envisioned by early web theorists.[9] Since that time, many new media scholars have continued to write about race online, addressing the complexities of multiple and simultaneous racialized and gendered identities that affect values embedded in the internet.

Nevertheless, the large-scale uptake of intersectional analysis as applied to the internet in its various forms had been notably missing, particularly in discussions of the internet’s materiality. In recent years, there has been a shift: Black feminism, where once missing from information studies, is now being used as a theoretical framework for thinking about Black women’s representations and engagements online.[10] Black feminist scholars examine digital technology phenomena by seeing how race, gender, class, power, sexuality, and other socially constructed categories interact with one another in a matrix of relations that create conditions of inequality or oppression.

Black feminist thought also offers a useful and anti-essentializing lens for understanding how both race and gender are constituted through historical, social, political, and economic processes,[11] creating openings for challenging research questions and new analytical possibilities. As a theoretical approach, it challenges the dominant research on race and gender, which tends to universalize problems assigned to race or Blackness as “male” (or the problems of men) and organizes gender as primarily conceived through the lenses and experiences of White women, leaving Black women in a precarious and understudied position.[12] Intersectionality has moved to the fore in Black studies, gender studies, sociology, and other fields; so much so that in some cases the concept and word have been divorced from Black feminist epistemologies and scholarship entirely. The word “intersectionality” is often invoked even as the Black, radical, queer, and feminist intellectual traditions from which the term was generated are silenced. It has rarely been invoked in information studies research, making this contribution to the scholarship even more important.

In previous research, both critical race theory and Black feminism helped me make sense of the ways that technology ecosystems—from traditional classification systems such as library databases[13] to new media technologies such as commercial search engines—are structuring detrimental narratives about Black life,[14] and reproducing racist narratives that work in service of material disenfranchisement. I have used Black feminism to study the potency and problematics of the hypersexualized image of Black women and girls in Google searches and the implications of such for public information resources. In doing so, I show how Black women are located in a long and tragic history of misrepresentation that has material consequences in Black women’s lives. The prevalence of derogatory images of Black women in the media is meaningfully tied to the real-world circumstances that demean the value of Black women’s lives, and these images serve as justification for systemic exclusion and oppression.[15] For example, the Center for American Progress reports a number of sobering facts about Black women’s lives in the US:

  • Black women receive 65% of new AIDS diagnoses
  • Single African American women have a median wealth of $100
  • African American women with children have zero median wealth
  • The poverty rate of African American lesbian couples is 21.1 percent versus 4.3 percent for White lesbian couples
  • African American women are three times more likely than White women to be incarcerated. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Latinas and African American women are disproportionately affected both by crime (since they are more likely to be victimized) and by incarceration, especially those who are primary caregivers for their children.[16]

The kinds of economic and social precarity described above are tied directly to the legacy of enslavement and colonization, which persists in contemporary life for many Black women and children around the globe. Therefore, rather than follow the traditions in new media and information studies that primarily focus on racial representation without direct ties to the material conditions of oppressed people, I now co-locate my digital studies work with Daniels’s call[17] for an analysis that foregrounds how white supremacy structures the internet as we know it in the West. In the context of the digital, this intersectional framing allows for questions—absent from other analyses—that link the processes and structures of hegemony, imperialism, and power to the material implications of the project we know as the internet.

The Intersectional Internet Infrastructure

I now move to theorizing the materiality of the internet through an intersectional analysis of the labor of extracting and disposing of digital technologies. This move from representation to other forms of materiality provides an important new contribution to moving the fields of information and communication studies toward research that examines the global distributions of resources that disproportionately and negatively impact Black life, and the lives of those in the Global South, in the material creation, use, and disposal of digital technology engagements.[18] To engage in these continued research efforts requires an expansion of our definitions of white supremacy to include how global flows of capital from US corporations and Silicon Valley structure labor markets and material infrastructures that are part of an oppressive system of digital technological engagements, largely hidden from view in the consumerist model of technology adoption.

In the US, Black women’s participation with the digital is frequently evinced in neoliberal preoccupations with learning to code, or to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, given and in spite of the low employment rates of Black women in Silicon Valley and across science and information technology fields. Rather than focus this paper on how Black women and girls can participate in such projects, a matter I take up elsewhere, I will say that these projects are largely an individualized, privatized approach to thinking about Black women’s empowerment, in neoliberal fashion. Here, I instead focus on the “interlocking oppressions” that are now entering the collective consciousness of academics and activists, who are engaging in what I have previously termed a Black feminist technology studies approach to thinking through the implications of the internet as global communications infrastructure.[19] I focus on this because many African American digital technology projects are disconnected in their context, content, and intent from the materiality of ICT processes in the Black/African diaspora. Framed for a Western audience—commonly presumed as the intended target for many internet technologies and platforms—they are hidden from view. Further, the neoliberal project privileges the technology experiences of individuals over the collective, the consumer over the producer, the African-American over the Black/African diaspora. Intersectional analysis allows for needed linkages between the labor and resources involved in the web and other global communications infrastructure projects that both facilitate, and are a source of, globalized extractive capitalism.

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Footnotes
  1. Combahee River Collective statement. [Return to text]
  2. “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement” by Alicia Garza, October 7, 2014. [Return to text]
  3. Brittney Cooper, “Intersectionality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). [Return to text]
  4. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–1299. [Return to text]
  5. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982); Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Random House, 1981; repr., New York: Vintage, 1983); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990; repr., New York: Routledge, 2000); Sumi Cho, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall, “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis,” Signs 38, no. 4 (2013): 785–810; bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992). [Return to text]
  6. Daniels, “Race and Racism in Internet Studies: A Review and Critique,” New Media and Society 15, no. 5 (2012): 695–719. [Return to text]
  7. Lori Kendall, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); André Brock, “Beyond the Pale: The Blackbird Web Browser’s Critical Reception,” New Media and Society 13, no. 7 (2011): 1085–1103. [Return to text]
  8. Brock, “Beyond the Pale,” 1088. [Return to text]
  9. Jerry Kang, “Cyber-Race,” Harvard Law Review 113, no. 5 (2002): 1130–1208. [Return to text]
  10. Safiya Umoja Noble, “Google Search: Hyper-Visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,” InVisible Culture 19 (October 2013); Noble, “Trayvon, Race, Media and the Politics of Spectacle,” The Black Scholar 44, no. 1 (2014); Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes, “Introduction,” The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class and Culture Online, ed. Noble and Tynes, Digital Formations Series (New York: Peter Lang, 2016); Catherine Knight Steele, “Signifyin’, Bitching, and Blogging: Black Women and Resistance Discourse Online,” in Noble and Tynes, Intersectional Internet; Miriam E. Sweeney, “The Intersectional Interface,” in Noble and Tynes, Intersectional Internet; Tiera Chante’ Tanksley, “Education, Representation, and Resistance: Black Girls in Popular Instagram Memes,” in Noble and Tynes, Intersectional Internet. [Return to text]
  11. Collins, Black Feminist Thought ; hooks, Black Looks; Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness As Property,” Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Informed the Movement, ed. Crenshaw et al. (New York: New Press, 1995); Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins.” [Return to text]
  12. Hull, Bell Scott, and Smith, But Some of Us Are Brave. [Return to text]
  13. Jonathan Furner, “Dewey Deracialized: A Critical Race-Theoretic Perspective,” Knowledge Organization 34 (2007): 144–168. [Return to text]
  14. Noble, “Google Search”; Noble, “Trayvon, Race, Media.” [Return to text]
  15. Jessica L. Davis and Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., “Racial Identity and Media Orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint,” Journal of Black Studies 29, no. 3 (1999): 367–397. See the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia for a detailed examination of how racial stereotyping is directly tied to thes denial of social, political, and economic resources for African Americans in the United States. [Return to text]
  16. Statistics provided by the Center for American Progress in their 2013 “Fact Sheet: The State of African American Women in the United States.” [Return to text]
  17. Daniels, “Race and Racism.” [Return to text]
  18. Sarah T. Roberts, “Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work,” in Noble and Tynes, Intersectional Internet (2016a). Sarah T. Roberts, “Digital Refuse: Canadian Garbage, Commercial Content Moderation and the Global Circulation of Social Media’s Waste,” Wi: Journal of Mobile Media 10, no. 1 (2016b): 1–18. [Return to text]
  19. Noble, S. (2012). Searching for Black girls: Old Traditions in New media. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. [Return to text]